Planning a Picnic for an Elder in a Senior Living Community

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Would you prefer a hot dog or hamburger? Ketchup, mustard, relish? Chips, salad, dessert?

All were available during the annual barbecue picnic at the nursing home where my parents, my uncle and my mother-in-law lived at different times. While people also enjoyed the monthly birthday dinners and holiday festivities hosted by the nursing home, the summer barbecue was one of the most anticipated events of the year.

The care home's backyard included a vegetable garden, which allowed the residents who liked working the soil to tend and harvest the plants, eventually sharing their healthful bounty with everyone.

Large wooden barrels, the perfect height for wheelchair access, provided flower beds for those who enjoyed creating and maintaining their own patch of beauty.

Trees shaded the greater lawn, while vines cascaded from hanging planters and wound their way along an overhead trellis, providing more shade from the hot afternoon sun.

Residents and their families would gather on the patio, or find chairs under the trees out on the lawn. The able bodied served those with more limited abilities. For years, the grill chef was the husband of one resident. He was aided by other spouses, children and grandchildren of residents, as well as staff. Every resident willing and able to enjoy this outdoor festivity was escorted to a pleasant location and looked after.

The smell of grilling meat, mixed with the perfume of flowers and freshly mown grass, brought back memories of easier times for many elders and their families.

If ever a nursing home could provide an event where the phrase, "a good time was had by all," was appropriate, this was the event.

Expanding on the picnic theme

Picnics are symbolic of shared good times, casual but special.

While generally held outdoors, they need not be. A quick look at the dictionary tells us that the word picnic means an informal good time. With that definition as a guide, we can come up with our own variations.

For example, my uncle loved going for automobile rides during nice weather, so once a week, rather than visiting him in his nursing home room as I did on other days, I'd pick him up in the car.

We'd then drive around to look at flowering trees and bushes in the community. My uncle particularly enjoyed the spring crab apple blossoms. He and my aunt had spent two decades out east, where spring cherry blossoms abound. Later, as summer took hold, our universities and colleges, as well as many local neighborhoods, boasted not only their wonderful old trees but an abundance of summer blooms. Later still, we'd take in the fall color.

Nearly every ride included a stop for a Dairy Queen on the way home. Those times were our way of sharing a picnic.

My parents had a closely knit group of good friends they'd enjoyed for years, so after Mom and Dad both needed nursing care I tried to continue some of that tradition.

I'd reserve a small conference room that the nursing home staff made available, when requested, so that I could host pizza parties for my parents and their friends. It took some doing, but the staff helped where necessary and pizza, beer and soft drinks were served. We all enjoyed the casual fun and familiar food.

At other times, I'd gather my loved ones together and settle them in to visit one another while I ran out to their favorite Mexican food restaurant for takeout, or, in the dead of winter, I'd pick up a barbeque chicken, potato salad and beans from the local deli and bring a picnic to them.

Help facility staff create special days for residents

While most nursing homes have activity directors, they are often challenged with limited budgets and by widely varying needs of residents.

My loved ones' facility managed to provide many special events for the residents and families, and it was fun to take part in the special plans. However, providing my own family members with more intimate parties was also important.

If your elders or spouse can handle a restaurant outing or a trip to your home, then enjoy that for as long as you can.

But if they get to a point where restaurants are too confusing and, because of physical issues, taking them into your home becomes too challenging, take the party to them.

All you need is the knowledge of your loved ones' favorite foods and perhaps a little imagination. Most nursing home staff members are delighted to help in any way they can, so don't be afraid to ask them for tips if you have an idea that you'd like to implement.

Balance your loved ones' need for routine and a safe, secure schedule, with an occasional burst of adventure suited to their personalities and abilities.

You all will likely feel mentally refreshed, if physically tired, after your shared good time.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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