Stay connected with elder in retirement setting

By  Lisa Petsche
  • January 26, 2007
One of my husband's aunts moved to a nursing home a while ago, due to her fluctuating health status and declining ability to care for herself. Although she'd exhausted other options, she was extremely unhappy about the situation and initially our visits there were strained. But my husband and I persisted and gradually found ways to make interactions with her enjoyable again.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, grappling with how to help ease an older relative's transition into long-term care, here are some suggestions from my personal and professional experience.

One of the best things you can do is share psychosocial information with staff to help them get to know your relative. Valuable personal information might include birthplace and other places lived; family of origin; education; work history; successes, losses and other challenges; significant relationships; pastimes and skills; personality and coping style; cultural and religious background; values and beliefs; routines and habits; likes and dislikes; and what brings comfort when something upsetting occurs.

Such information assists staff in seeing a unique person rather than simply someone with a set of physical needs (especially valuable if your relative is unable to communicate or illness has caused behavioural changes.) It also guides staff in individualizing the plan of care. In addition, they can use the information to initiate conversation, putting your relative at ease and building rapport, and to introduce him or her to residents with similar backgrounds or interests and match recreation programs to fit specific needs.

There are also many direct ways you can help your relative feel valued and connected to pre-admission life:

  • Bring in possessions from home to personalize his or her room.
  • Supply a large calendar with special occasions marked.
  • Plan to visit when you're not rushed for time. Develop a regular visiting schedule so your relative knows when to expect you and can anticipate your next visit. Telephone between visits if you can't get in as often as he or she would like.
  • Bring flowers from your garden or some favourite foods.
  • Change room decorations to reflect the seasons and holidays.
  • Actively listen to what your relative has to tell you. Show interest in his or her daily activities.
  • Keep your relative informed about current events by supplying a radio or television or arranging for a newspaper subscription.
  • Recreate routines from home, such as playing cards or watching a favourite TV program together.
  • Encourage your relative to try some recreational programs or attend a resident council meeting. Join in yourself for special events.
  • Keep your relative up-to-date on news about family and friends, and involve him or her in family decision-making.
  • Notify family members and friends of the new address and phone number and encourage them to call, write or visit. Offer to join them for the first visit if they express anxiety.
  • Bring your relative's or your pet in to visit (find out the home's policy first).
  • Plan activities outside the residence. Go for a walk around the neighbourhood or take a drive, for example. If your relative uses a wheelchair, register with the local accessible transportation service so you can take him or her to a restaurant, the mall or community events.
  • If it's feasible, arrange for your relative to come home for a few hours.
  • Continue to include him or her in family celebrations. If members' homes aren't accessible, choose a restaurant or banquet hall that is, or ask staff to help you plan a gathering onsite. Videotape or photograph events your relative is unable to attend, to share later.

Be prepared that your relative may demonstrate considerable sadness, anxiety or anger at first. He or she will need time to grieve losses, which might include a house that holds fond memories, companions, pets, possessions and supportive neighbours, for example.

Some residents adjust to their new circumstances within a matter of weeks, while others can take months to accept the change in living arrangements and settle into their environment. Be patient. Keep showing up and reaching out.

If you're concerned that your relative isn't adapting very well, consult with the staff social worker.

(Petsche is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register.)

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