Aging Parents and Change Management

By Jessica Thomas, Principal Consultant at Navigator Management Partners

I recently watched a friend in Ohio go through what we all know is coming, moving his mother who lived in Georgia into assisted living. His father was already in a facility that supported his advancing Alzheimer’s. His mom lived close by and drove to visit him every day. My friend and his siblings all lived out of state and had many conversations about what to do when this time came. As an organizational change management professional who supports billion-dollar corporations through large transformational change, it struck me how their conversations played out much like ones I have in conference rooms.

‘Mom is getting too old to drive; she is going to kill someone. We need to take her car away,’ sounded to me like, ‘in our employees’ health interests, we are going to get rid of McDonalds in the food court’. 'Mom can take the bus to see dad' translated into 'we’ll provide healthy food choices for them'. 'That house is too much for mom to manage' became 'we know what’s best for our employees'. 'We can move both her and dad to Ohio'  sounded a lot like, 'we can remove all the cubicles and create an open work environment to encourage innovation'.

They knew their mother would resist, but ‘Oh well’ this is what’s best for her. I reflected, how many times are we told to change because it is what’s best for the company?

When the time came to move my friend’s mom, it played out much as he expected. She was extremely upset and felt bullied. They were forcing her to move out of her home, to a new state and placing her husband of 50 years into a facility she knew nothing about. What my friend did not expect was how hard it was for him and his siblings to go through this change too.

I realized how I coach my clients to be thoughtful and approach change initiatives in a structured manner is also how we need to approach personal change as well.  Organizational Change Management (OCM) is a structured approach to transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state. It can be used in situations such as downsizing, growing organizations, new technologies or moving mom into assisted living.  It is a proven process aimed at helping employees understand, commit to, and embrace changes in their business environment.

Let’s apply some often ignored, but what I feel are golden OCM principles to moving mom and consider how the outcome might have been different. Notice these principles start long before the change and are woven into every step of the process.

1. Resistance to change is normal and should be expected.

Resistance will happen every time, even when leaders claim employees have no choice. It is important to have a plan and the resources to address it long before the change happens. Research shows the number one most effective way to mitigate resistance is to actively listen to employees concerns. Early family conversations could have included planning for all the reasons mom will resist because they knew the reasons already. Knowing they are coming and planning for them are two different things. Coming to agreement on how to handle mom’s concerns would create buy-in and support from all the siblings. 

What also needed to be addressed was each family member’s unique response to the situation. Maybe one sister was fearful knowing someday she will be in her mother’s shoes. Maybe my friend’s brother was too overwhelmed. Organizational change happens one person at a time and each person has unique motivators.  This is why change is so messy and oftentimes fails in organizations. When an employee is resisting the change, I simply ask them ‘why’.  Their answer may surprise you.  Never assume you know why people are resisting change.

2. Always include who is impacted by the change in creating the solution. 

A representative from each impacted group should have a seat at the table; otherwise, the change is happening to them, not with them. Including their mother in conversations about how to manage her current situation would have been the golden ticket to her buy-in. She would have felt more in control of her future. 

3. Create awareness of the need for the change early in the process.

My friend’s mom needed some time to adjust. Adjust to her failing health, to the idea of losing her car and her home and to moving across the country. This was not a situation that was going to get resolved in a few weeks’ time. He and his siblings needed time to adjust too. Be patient with employees, encourage and reassure them, they may come around on their own.

4. Show employees what the future state looks and feels like.

Bringing his mom to Ohio to visit a few times and having her select where she was going to live would have helped to relieve her fears of the unknown. She could have spent time with residents of the assisted care facility, people who have experienced what she is going through.   Sometimes you have to get creative. Can you send employees on a field trip to another company or facility that has already incorporated the expected changes? Running pilots, obtaining testimonials, demonstrating software are other ways I have exposed employees to what is changing.

It has been about six months and my friend’s mom is living in a facility close to his dad in Georgia.  They have cleaned out her house but have not listed it and I’ve gotten conflicting reports about her driving.  He told me the other day that although they didn’t achieve what they originally set out to do, taking the changes in steps has been best for the entire family. He only wishes they had planned it that way from the start, it would have prevented so much heartache and anxiety.

What do you think? Was the change a success?