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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published December 22 2012

Minding Our Elders: Ask staff for advice when visiting elders in nursing homes

DEAR CAROL: My husband and I are traveling this Christmas and want to take a side trip to visit my aging aunt who is in a nursing home. My aunt has Alzheimer’s disease, which we don’t have experience with. Besides that, we are both uncomfortable in a hospital setting and haven’t had experience with nursing homes. What should we consider? – Jen

DEAR JEN: It’s wonderful that you plan to visit your aunt, and you’re on top of the game just by recognizing that there may be a protocol to consider when visiting a nursing home.

Remember that people in nursing homes are not hospital patients. The nursing home is their real home. Just like the rest of us, they likely feel most comfortable staying with their daily routine. I’d call the nursing home ahead of time and identify yourself as your aunt’s niece, then ask to speak with a nurse or social worker about the best time to visit. You may also ask if there’s something appropriate you could bring.

If you happen to have access to pictures from when you were young, bring them along if you can. Your aunt may remember events from the past even though her short-term memory is likely poor.

Don’t take an uncertain reception from your aunt personally as any interruption in her day may make her anxious. Even if she’s rude, be kind and courteous. Alzheimer’s robs many people of their inhibitions, so if she’s temporarily annoyed by having her routine interrupted, she may say so. Apologize and then let it go. If she seems to be particularly upset, ask the staff how to handle the situation.

When you see your aunt, you might say, “Hi, Auntie. I’m Jenny, your sister Jane’s daughter. This is my husband, Joe.” That takes your aunt off the hook as to where you belong in her memories. Realize that she still may not be able to place you in her life. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want your company.

It would be nice to show interest in your aunt’s personal items and compliment her on her nice home. Doing so may also provide you with topics of conversation. When you chat with her, remember that she may have difficulty finding words, so be patient. Don’t jump in to help her out unless she signals that she wants you to provide a word or seems overly frustrated with her struggle.

If your aunt seems comfortable with physical contact, give her a hug. If she can’t speak or is just sleepy or seemingly not present, hold her hand, talk with her and just quietly sit with her. It’s important not to discuss your aunt with your husband as if she’s not there. She may understand more than you think, even if she can’t respond to your words.

Lastly, don’t wear her out by demanding attention from her, but don’t hurry off, either. Again, the staff can help coach you if you’re unsure how long to stay. If you are compassionate and loving, the visit should be rewarding for you and your aunt. I’m certain you won’t regret going to see her.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com.