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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published February 06 2011

Bursack: Notes can help when flu halts daily visits

Dear Carol: Last year, during a flu outbreak, the nursing home where my mom lives wouldn’t allow visitors for over a week. I understand why they did that, but it was very hard on Mom to not have me tend to her needs. Any advice if this happens this year? – Angie

Dear Angie: When both of my parents lived in a nursing home, the same thing happened to us. To prevent the spread of the flu virus to vulnerable elders in the nursing home, the home’s administration banned visitors for 10 days.

This action was necessary. But it was hard on my parents, especially my dad, who had a severe type of dementia caused by a failed brain surgery.

Mom could use a telephone and had one in her room, so we spoke several times a day. With each call, I reminded her why I wasn’t coming for my daily visit.

For Dad the situation was more challenging. My solution was to write him a short note, in large, bold computer print that he could read. I’d drop a note off at the front desk each day, and the staff kept the note in plain view, by his chair. The note helped Dad remember why I wasn’t there to see him.

For some people, daily stops to a nursing home aren’t practical. What I recommend to them is similar to what I suggest to people taking a vacation, or who, for some other reason, must be absent for some time: Write a supply of notes to the elder and ask the staff to have someone deliver one each day.

Nursing home staff members are genuinely interested in keeping their residents happy just because they are good people. However, this note routine also makes their work easier. Rather than having to repeatedly explain to an elder the reason that their family members can’t visit, when the elder asks why a family member isn’t there, they can point out the hand-delivered note.

Food items can be delivered in the same way. I even left Mom the iced shrimp she liked for a weekly lunch. Of course, if you are dropping off a week’s supply of treats, you should limit food to items that don’t need refrigeration. For Dad, leaving a package of his favorite butterscotch candy helped him understand that I was still “there,” even though I couldn’t visit.

The ban on visits was hard for my parents, but my attempts to stay in contact did make a difference. It was all I could do.


Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.