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11 Tips for a Terrific Visit With an Elderly Loved One

Unsure what to say or do when you visit an older loved one? Worry about running out things to say? Many people make brief visits to those in assisted living, rehab facilities, or nursing homes -- or avoid visiting completely -- because they dread awkward moments. Please don't let these concerns stop you from visiting. Recent research that shows that loneliness is a major health problem, causing damaging stress and even memory loss. Even those living with others in group settings can experience the dangers of loneliness. Visits, however, can provide wonderful opportunities for bonding, connection, and learning from one another.

Some tips for terrific visits:

Remember that it's not about you.

It's natural to feel self-conscious about how you're "supposed" to act in a new situation. For some, visits dredge up painful sadness and grief. Consider it a gift to your loved one to set your own feelings aside. Focus on something larger than yourself, in this case enriching part of your relative's or friend's day at a difficult time of life. He or she likely feels sad and awkward, too. Move forward from there.

Focus on the person inside -- that's who you want to connect with.

He or she is still there, even if the outer package has changed considerably. It can help to look into the person's eyes. They really are the "window to the soul."

Time your visit with care.

Many frail elders have the most energy and alertness in the morning or right after a midday meal. Or sharing the meal itself can give you both something to focus on, especially if your loved one could use a little help. Call ahead to ask if you're unsure when a good visiting time is.

Set the right tone with a warm greeting.

Don't stand stiffly, gazing down at someone in a wheelchair or seat who can't rise up easily to greet you. Imagine if your placements were reversed and act accordingly: You'd like your visitor to make eye contact, give a warm hug or handclasp, and then sit down to talk at eye level. Use these physical cues as wordless ways of saying "I love you."

Tweak your communication style.

In 2012, the Gerontological Society of America mapped out evidence-based communication guidelines for health professionals who work with older adults. Some tips apply well to family and friends:

  • Raise your voice slightly if needed. About half of those over 75 have hearing trouble. But don't shout, which can actually be even harder to hear.

  • Turn off the radio or other background noise. Move out of a room that has a TV blaring.

  • Keep your faces at about the same level. Many people rely on lip reading to help follow a conversation. (Plus, face-to-face is just polite!)

  • Pay attention to your nonverbal communication. Fidgeting with your keys and checking your phone every five minutes loudly proclaims that you'd rather be someplace else. Turn off the electronics and the noises in your head and be present.

Bring props.

You can take off some of the "performance" pressure you might feel in making conversation by bringing along a helping hand. Examples:

  • Some favorite or seasonal music (and something to play it on if needed)

  • Recent videos to watch (a tablet with a large screen is easier to see than a phone)

  • Old photographs or documents you've found

  • An old toy or collectible

  • Recipe cards

  • Hand lotion for a hand massage or manicure materials

  • Food: tea and a tea set, a favorite sweet, take-out Chinese

Young kids and pets can be wonderful distracters, too. Keep child visits brief if they have a lot of energy (and keep them home if they're cranky). Ask ahead for the facility's policy on animals.

Come prepared with a few springboard phrases.

Look for topics in both the present and the past. For example:

  • Refer to the props: "Look what I found. . . ." Or "I've brought something you might like. . . ."

  • Start with your own life. For example: "It's cold today. What's your favorite season?" Or, "My son started high school. What subject did you like best in school?"

  • Encourage storytelling. Try these conversation starters.

  • When in doubt, ask. "Are you comfortable talking about X?"

Try a change of scenery.

Moving out of the room can boost mood and give you both fresh focal points to talk about. If there's a courtyard or garden, your loved one may welcome a chance to spend time there. Or consider going out, if he or she is able to leave the premises with you easily -- even if just for a Sunday drive with no destination.

Keep it real.

Don't feel obligated to provide the forced gaiety of balloons and birthday cake, for example, for someone who's struggling with depression or isn't very responsive. It's usually more meaningful to receive multiple visits from one or two people at a time than to have a dozen people rush into a room once. Realistic expectations help you make the most of nursing home visits. Slow your pace of life to enjoy quiet talk, hugs, and laughter. Remember that someone in an assisted living situation is there because he or she needs help and therefore is apt to tire more easily than before.

Choose short-and-sweet over long-and-vapid.

There's no ideal length for a visit. It depends on the health and energy of the person you're visiting and how your time together progresses. In general, though, briefer is better. Most people treasure a half hour of warm connection over sitting in silence for twice that time.

Don't get intimidated by dementia.

Most of these tips can apply to spending time with someone who has Alzheimer's disease. You'll need to be more patient with repetition and circular conversations, of course. But in some ways, this takes the pressure off: Find out what promotes a good time -- music, looking at photos, a change of scenery -- and run with it, visit after visit.

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