Aging in Maine

Holiday visits to nursing homes can touch the heart

Posted Dec. 23, 2010, at 2:40 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 23, 2010, at 4:36 p.m.

While there may be no place like home for the holidays, that’s just not reality for some people who are ill. Being in a nursing home can be a struggle anytime of year, but the holiday season can be particularly difficult.

Having a visit from loved ones is surely appreciated, but there are things you can do to kick it up a notch. Here are some suggestions to make this season a little merrier for someone in such a facility:

  • First off, check with the staff to see how much decorating you’ll be allowed to do. And ask your loved one what he or she thinks would make the room more festive. Decorations can be bought inexpensively at dollar stores.
  • If possible, sing familiar holiday songs. Bring along some large-print sheet music and a cassette player if possible. If your loved one has a roommate, check first to make sure all this merriment is OK. Some people may not want holiday spirit forced on them.
  • Read a favorite holiday story together, and include a large-print version, if you can find one, for the senior. Or make a copy of regular-size print, cut the paper in half and turn it sideways to enlarge on a copier.
  • Craft stores are great re-sources for every holiday. If the facility has a common room that is available, you and your loved one could make simple tree ornaments or other holiday projects. It actually is a lot of fun.
  • Who doesn’t have old, unidentified family pictures hanging around? Perhaps your loved one can clear up the mystery. Bring the photos and a large scrapbook with you when you visit. You may learn a thing or two about your family while putting the pictures in the album.
  • Bring some holiday catalogs on your visit and ask for the senior’s input on gift choices for other older family members.
  • Most facilities have several holiday functions in which family members can participate. This is quality time with your loved one and gives good insight into his or her world. The facility’s activity director will have a list of coming events.
  • Do an activity together related to the family’s religion, such as reading stories from the Bible or other religious texts.
  • Bring in items related to the senior’s interests. For instance, for a male nursing home resident who is a car buff, grandchildren could bring in model cars, car magazines, glossy dealership brochures or give a “tour” of the family’s new car. Have the children use these items to spark conversation.
  • Before bringing children into a nursing home, prepare them for what they may see. This will be a new experience and could prove frightening. Tell them what to expect, that they will see people in wheelchairs or people who are unresponsive. Encourage them to talk about the experience.

Children may be understandably shy, so give them a small gift that they can give to their loved one. Think about lotion, brushes, combs, framed family pictures or large-print books.

When the ice is broken, suggest that the children “interview” their elderly relatives about what life was like when they were the child’s age. Prepare questions in advance and consider recording these responses on videotape or audio-cassette. This oral history is a gift in itself.

Think about what the senior is interested in — for example, if he or she is a sports fan. Did Nana really play basketball in 1930? Have the children bring in items revolving around his or her favorite team. There is no shortage of sports-related paraphernalia. Maybe a large- print book on a favorite player is in order.

The most important thing is to be there and to let your aging loved ones know that they are cared about and still an important part of the family.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging.

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