What to take when moving into assisted living

Marilyn EllisMarilyn Ellis
Lighthouse Organizers, LLC
Walnut Creek, California

Member of the national ElderCare Matters Alliance, California chapter

Moving into an assisted living community isn’t the end of the road – it’s a new beginning.

While seniors might desire to stay in their homes, practicalities often dominate: hard to walk up stairs, inadequate bathroom, or the home is in disrepair or is too big or too costly to keep up.  Perhaps they have suffered an unexpected and permanent loss in function.  Moving in with you or having someone live with them may not be an option.

If you’ve neither visited an assisted living community nor done so in several years, you are in for a happy surprise.  They are nothing like the early 20th century horrors of a nursing home.

In major population centers throughout America, many assisted living communities are like cruise ships that never sail with beautiful common rooms, elegant dining rooms, media centers, beauty shops and meeting rooms.

The program director is much like a cruise director, encouraging residents to partake in a myriad of activities.  Seniors can stroll or sit in beautiful outdoor gardens, sign up for craft classes, lectures and field trips, hop a shuttle into town or to an appointment or just gather for wine around the grand piano every afternoon at cocktail hour.  Pets are often welcome.

Furnishings for assisted living quarters can vary, however.  Once you know what is needed, you might find the senior can’t decide what to take.  The choices can be overwhelming and paralyzing.


First, get your elder out of the home and into the new community before you try to sort through a lifetime of possessions.

In most cases, apartments in assisted living communities have a kitchen, a living room, a spacious bathroom that can accommodate a wheelchair and a 10′ x 12′ bedroom.  Total area of the living quarters may be about 700 square feet.  That sounds small, but remember that seniors are often busy outside of the apartments with numerous activities and will be eating three meals per day in the common dining room with other residents.

The kitchen will probably have a refrigerator, sink, and microwave oven.  There will be space for dishes and a few pots and pans.  There may be a small pantry and possibly a dishwasher.  In many or most cases, the senior will never want to use any of these things anyway.

What to take

Kitchen:  A small table no larger than 36″ diameter; two kitchen chairs; four place settings of dishes; cutlery; a few cooking pots/containers; waste basket; small appliances; and a microwave if not provided.

Living Room:  One six-foot sofa plus 1 chair or 1 loveseat and 2 chairs, television, credenza, video equipment telephone, bookcase, or curio cabinet for photos and keepsakes.  Coffee tables are a tripping hazard.

Bedroom:  A full or queen bed, two nightstands, one telephone, television, video equipment as needed, two lamps, a dresser and mirror or 1 chest of drawers, a chair, bedspread, pillows, and two sets of sheets.

Bathroom:  Laundry basket, waste basket, four sets of towels, and grab handles in tub/shower (if these aren’t already installed).

Bedroom closet:  Make sure that the closet has double hang-rods.  Seniors usually wear separates rather than needing full hang-rods.  If you can afford it, install a small set of pullout wire drawers for shoes.  Elfa Closet and Rubber Maid have designs that are perfect for this need.  This will be an additional cost but well worth it in convenience and extra storage.

Patio or deck:  Don’t forget to provide a couple of small outdoor chairs and a small table if necessary.

Accessories:  Here’s the magic.  I’ve seen senior apartments that look like motel rooms, and it always breaks my heart.  Don’t believe elders when they say they don’t care and don’t want anything.  They do care; they just won’t admit it to you.  They always tell me later that they are sorry they pretended they didn’t care.  They were trying not to be too much trouble or were just being cantankerous at the time.

The reverse is trying to fit everything in their new space.  Too many pieces of furniture create a warehouse effect and can be hazardous and stifling in a small space.  You can’t fit 2,000 square feet of “stuff” into a 700 square feet space, no matter what you do.  Less is more.

Make sure keepsakes, within reason, go with them.  Determine what they really love, that is what carries memories and makes them happy.  Some things will have to be left behind.  Take what will fit on the bookcase, curio cabinet, or on the walls.

Take all photo albums to store in the closet and re-frame photos when necessary.  I often find the photo frames to be old and falling apart.  Renewing them is honoring their memories.  Make sure family photos are proudly displayed on the wall.  Your senior loved ones are proud of you and want to see your photos and to show their friends.

Try to place their living room and bedroom accessories as closely as possible to their previous home.  Senior communities will provide window blinds on the windows.  Warm up the windows with store bought valances.

Memory Loss / Alzheimer’s / Dementia

Those beloved seniors will have small rooms with a single bed, night table, dresser, chair and a bathroom.  They won’t need a kitchen.

We really don’t know what their awareness level is so make sure that familiar items and photos go with them, even if you are not sure they remember what they are.  When in doubt, take it with them.

They will spend their awake hours in the common areas under supervision and will be encouraged to engage in activities matching their abilities.  They will be tucked in safely at night.

Often, their residences are on the upper floors of assisted living communities where they can have an enclosed, inescapable rooftop garden in which to stroll and entertain visitors.

Knowing all of this in advance will save you time, trouble, worry, and inconvenience.  It will make a huge difference in how your elderly loved one settles into their new home.  Making this transition as seamless as possible will make a huge difference in your stress level too.

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