Get Over Feelings That Prevent You From Visiting the Nursing Home


Often people say they hate to visit nursing homes because "they smell." Or it's depressing to see all of those old people sitting in their wheelchairs waiting to die. Or, well, they just hate it and feel guilty about hating it.

Okay, let's tackle the smell, since I've heard this excuse from people who have never darkened the door of a nursing home. Accidents happen. Even the most well-run nursing home will have incontinent people who need to be changed. That being said, a good facility will handle this well and the situation will be transient. If the home consistently smells of human waste, or even cleaning products, this could be a clue that the home isn't well run. This could be an alert for you to check into how good the care is, overall.

So, there you go. That's a reason to visit. While you are at it, use your gut to determine if the residents seem to be treated with respect, or if they are just a lump to be moved from place to place. Does the staff attempt to joke with the elder, or sympathize with him or her? Is there real human connection going on? Consider yourself a person on a mission. No, not a person out to "get" the facility staff - but someone to observe and learn. That is another reason to visit.

Next, use a little insight. Personally, I feel one huge reason many people avoid going into nursing homes is that there is no better place to have our own mortality thrown in our face. This could be us in a few years time, and we don't like that feeling. Get honest with yourself. If this is at the bottom of your reluctance to visit, then stare your fear in the face. Visit your loved one in the nursing home, make yourself useful with other residents as well, and work as an activist to improve nursing homes, so that when you are old - yes, you will get old, if you are fortunate enough to live that long - nursing homes are better than they are now.

What To Do When You Visit A Nursing Home

Once you've gotten over the past excuses for not entering the nursing home, figure out some constructive ways to visit so that you and your loved one can enjoy the time, or at least you don't feel your time is wasted.

  • Good nursing homes are now adopting person-centered care. They attempt to find out as much as possible about each person they care for and tailor the care to the needs and preferences of that person. Often, these homes will have a white board, or bulletin board, near the door of a resident's room. So, if you are visiting someone you don't know well - say your wife's great aunt - if the home has made an effort to let staff and visitors know a bit about the resident, take time to read this information. Not all homes offer this yet, but this will soon, in my opinion, become the norm. If you don't have this option, try to snag a staff member and ask for some information about the person.
  • Of course, if you know the person well, you may not need these clues. However, you may want to do a little thinking ahead of the visit. What did Grandma or Mom like to do when she was young? What did Grandpa or Dad do when he was working? What was their proudest moment? If you give some thought to the person you are visiting - for you are visiting a person, not a lump of used up humanity - and think about this person's past, you will have topics for conversation, even if it's one-sided.
  • Even elders who have not lost their ability to remember what they had for lunch generally like to talk about their lives growing up, or their young married years. You are pretty safe talking about the past. Just don't bring up painful issues. If your sibling died young, wait until your mother brings up the issue, don't foist it upon her. However, if she does bring it up, let her talk, and reminisce with her about the person. Sometimes people put their lives into perspective by talking about these issues. Let them lead if they are able to.
  • Music from their prime years and old photo albums are two very good ways to communicate when you visit. I recently got a lovely email from a woman who had read the suggestion about photo albums in my newspaper column. She said that she lived some distance from her mother and was nervous about visiting. She brought an old photo album with her when she visited, and she and her mother connected more while looking over that old album than they had for years. I was pleased this worked for her, and I do believe it will work for most people. The ability to recognize faces lasts longer than the ability to read words. And some people well along the road of dementia will remember a face from their childhood, but won't remember you. Bring that photo album. If you don't have one, some relative likely does. This could be a valuable tool.
  • So, what if your loved one is mostly just lying there? Here again, music is good. Did that person love hymns? Hop on the Internet and order some old CDs. Bring a player if there isn't one already there, or use a personal device set on speaker. Did the person love big band music? I ordered about a zillion of those for my dad. When he died, the nursing home was more than happy to take them off my hands. Many people enjoyed that era. Watch the person's body language to make sure the music is pleasing and not irritating. Turn if off if they seem agitated, then, perhaps, try something more soothing.
  • Human touch is important. Here again, watch the person's body language. Elders are often fragile. Some people would love a back rub while others would feel assaulted. So, move with caution. Even if you've known the person well, touch gently, respectfully, and with full attention to the reaction you get. However, most people do enjoy touch enough that if you hold their hand while you listen to music, or gently stroke their arm, they will likely find it soothing.
  • Read to them. Yes, sometimes an old Bible story or a chapter from a beloved novel, read in a soothing voice, lets the person know they are being attended, without putting undue pressure on you to think of topics of conversation. Reading aloud can be a powerful way to connect.

Remember, one day you may be the person in that wheelchair or bed. You will want visitors. You will want to know that people love you enough to overcome their reluctance to visit a nursing home. You will also want to know that your loved ones are watching out to make sure you are well cared for.

So, as they say, get over yourself and just do it. With some preparation, you may find yourself quite proud and much gratified.

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.

Minding Our Elders

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Photos of course.....however, if you could bring him something that he really loves, something that would really make him happy....a particular food or another treat like a super comfortable and easy to put on item of clothing, etc. During the visit if you could take him out or to another room if necessary, bring some photos or songs from HIS younger years. Someone could research what were the top songs. If you can sing those songs, as a matter of a topic of conversatiion you have slyly diverted to, he might join in and it is that physical exertion that will create a memory. The stronger the stimuli the stronger the response. When we visited my mother in law and we sort of played a "do you remember" this song? ....It was so much fun for her. It brought up memories and she didn't speak of them, but she knew a lot of the words to the songs. She got to be the center of attention...all on her own. Her pulse went up and it caused her to breathe deeper and more, thus using more oxygen....this is a good thing.
Studies have shown correlation in physical (in this case singing) activity and mental stimulation. (That's why teachers use the alphabet song when teaching letters)
It's a visceral connection....a strong emotional memory, and it being made by something that is not more of the same of his daily life.
When you go, try to chart out a few hours, sometimes just being with him with a ride in a wheelchair outside, fresh air is great!. How about a trip in the car, that for a change isn't to a doctors office? Be WITH him and try to concentrate on being his compassionate servant. Be pleasant, cheerful, but be sincere.
A small milkshake he might enjoy. The physical abilities are more diminished as we age and the ease and primal satisfaction of just sucking on a straw can be enjoyable because it doesn't take coordination or a lot of effort.
Also, just a bit of psychology.....a professional told me once (and when an elder is having enough trouble already we don't need to create more tension.)..."No questions". People subconsciously do not like questions. Make statements, like, "I do hope you like that flavor, grandfather." And of course, sincere and true compliments. If a staff person or someone says something nice about him, pass it on....TO HIM. His generation may eschew compliments, but he will appreciate it and it will brighten his day.
Be as good to him as possible and BE AUTHENTIC to yourself and him. You will find great secrets you never knew about him and yourself.
Good luck.
It would be nice to have a "how to visit through the stages" guide somewhere. It's easy to visit mom when she can talk and interact.

It's awkward and strange feeling to visit with someone who sleeps through your visit or who can no longer communicate. I end up feeling like a lump who is taking up space and wonder if anybody is getting anything out of this. Then I remember when I was little, we'd go "visiting" after church on Sunday. People don't do this anymore and we've lost the art.

We'd drive around until we found somebody at home, and then "set a spell". I remember being told to sit still, don't touch, don't walk around, don't talk. Sometimes long periods of no talking would occur in the adults' conversation. You could hear the clocks ticking. If I were able, I might nod off or try to sneak in some book-reading. But to the adults, they were OK with these long silent lulls. We are not, but we can be.

I watch what other families do. Some of them have a non-verbal loved one, and they can just sit and one person does all the talking about the past. Or just things they saw on the ride over. It's not a philosophical debate about big issues.

Others just sit & hold hands.

Some are just next to each other, and nobody talks. You can't be a way that you aren't, and if you aren't a talker, you don't need to become one. Heck, my grandparents spent the greater part of the 1970s & 80s silent next to each other on the sofa, like they were posed in a painting. That's just natural and OK for some people.

I stay as long as mom is calm. I try to time my visits so there is a natural transition point for her that lets me go without so much fuss. E.g. I will visit before a meal time, so that when it's time to eat, I can get her setup at the table and then go when the food is served, or sit while she eats and then go when the table is cleared. It's much less disruptive this way.

I think it's OK to just "be" together as long as it's not agitating.

I can sort my mom's clothes when I go visit. This is something that has not ever caused her to get upset (so far) and she enjoys in her own way seeing all her things. I rehand them in the closet one at a time, and "take away for dry cleaning" the things that are too bad to keep wearing. They just don't ever come back and she doesn't remember.

I have found on Youtube, old home movies people have posted from the time period when mom was an unmarried girl (early-mid 1950s rural NC). She loves to see these, to see a time when things were better than now.

Also, you could take a tape recorder and ask him about his childhood, young adulthood and the times he grew up in.........It will become a treasure for all of his relations. But don't make it too stressful. Baby steps.......