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.

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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.