Knowing how to visit someone in a nursing home or assisted living isn’t always easy. Some people make brief, stiff visits. Others just don’t visit because they want to avoid awkward moments.
It’s important to find ways to overcome the reluctance because visits from family and friends give older adults the connection and support they need.
Research shows that loneliness is a serious health problem, especially among older adults. Even people who are living with other people and being cared for can feel lonely because they may not have meaningful connections.
Older adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia enjoy visits too, even if they don’t show recognition or remember it later. The positive feelings will stay with them.
To keep the personal connection strong, we’ve rounded up 10 practical tips to help you prepare for successful visits with your older adult.
Some people might not want to visit an older adult in assisted living or a nursing home because it makes them feel depressed, sad or guilty. It helps to refocus the intention behind the visit – it’s about them, not you.
Your visit lets them know that they haven’t been forgotten by family and friends. Moreover, regular visits allow you to check in on the care they’re getting. You can make sure your older adult isn’t being neglected, abused or the victim of fraud or theft. If there is a problem, you can do something about it before it becomes a serious or deadly issue.
It’s also important to adjust your expectations for what a successful visit really is. Be prepared for times when your older adult doesn’t respond with excitement or actively participate in the conversation.
This doesn’t mean they don’t want you there or don’t appreciate your effort. Their health conditions, the time of day and personality could all be influencing their reactions. From their point of view, sitting quietly together may be a wonderful and meaningful visit.
When visiting someone with dementia, it may feel scary because you don’t know how they’ll act or how you should behave.
When you see how different they are from the person you once knew, you might feel strong emotions. The best thing to do is to stay calm, focus on the good you’re doing for them, and give yourself time to adjust to this new experience. Learning some basic do’s and don’ts will help a great deal.
Simple, low-key activities are your best bet for an enjoyable visit with someone who has dementia. That includes looking through old photos, listening to their favorite music and taking a gentle walk.
Our lives are so busy it might seem like a good idea to drop by when your schedule allows.
But this might result in an unsuccessful visit because you could catch your older adult at a bad time. If you’re not sure when a good time would be, call ahead and speak with someone on staff who is familiar with your older adult.
Generally, older adults have the most energy in the morning or right after lunch. Also, sharing a meal can give you both something to do together. Your good company or help with the food could even boost their appetite.
Or, you could ask your older adult directly what time and day would be best for them and if they need you to bring anything for them. That way, they’ll know when to expect you and will look forward to the visit. Be sure to follow through and show up when you say you will so they won’t be disappointed and will know that they can count on you.
There is no standard “right” length of time for a visit with your older adult. It will depend on your relationship, their health condition and their energy level that day.
During the visit, pay attention to signs that they’re getting tired or agitated. For some people, especially those with dementia, shorter visits might work better. Others may enjoy longer visits where you have more time to enjoy activities together.
In general, it’s more meaningful and easier to handle visits from one or two people at a time. A dozen people visiting at once can be overwhelming for anyone.
Even if you know the person well, it can help to prepare conversation starters and activity ideas ahead of time. This reduces worries about what to say or do.
For conversation topics, think about their lives when they were younger, past careers or current interests. Even if the visit is mostly you chatting and reminiscing, you’ll feel better knowing that the discussion is relevant to your older adult.
If your older adult is interested in talking, be a good listener. Respect their stories and their willingness to share their life with you.
Try to avoid bringing up painful memories. But if they want to talk about something in their past, let them reminisce. Talking through it may help them put things in perspective or come to terms with what happened.
There are plenty of fun things to do while visiting someone in assisted living. Get 10 great suggestions in our companion article, “10 Fun Things to Do with Someone in a Nursing Home or Assisted Living.”
When you arrive, set the tone with a warm greeting. Avoid standing stiffly and staring down at someone who is in a wheelchair or is seated and can’t rise easily. Imagine how you’d feel if that happened to you. Instead, make eye contact, smile, and give a warm hug or handshake. Spend the visit at eye level with them.
Older adults are more easily distracted or agitated by a noisy or busy environment. It also makes it harder for them to hear you and participate in a conversation.
When you visit, lower the volume or turn off TVs, radios or other background noise. If you’re in a busy common room, move to a quieter, more private space. If there aren’t any quiet spaces inside, go for a walk outside to enjoy a peaceful moment together.
Effective and respectful communication is essential for any visit. Address and treat your older adult and other residents as adults, not children. Even if they’ve lost physical or mental abilities, they still deserve respect.
Hearing loss is very common among older adults, so make sure they can hear you. You might need to raise your voice slightly or be careful to enunciate clearly. But don’t shout or yell, that’s more difficult to hear.
Also, keep your faces at about the same level. Aside from being polite, many people rely on facial expressions or lip reading to understand the conversation.
It’s also a good practice to make it clear that you’re glad to be there. That means not fidgeting with belongings or frequently checking your phone or watch. If possible, turn your phone to silent mode so nothing interrupts your time together.
Overall, do your best to keep the conversation positive, and avoid arguing or upsetting them. This is especially important when visiting seniors with dementia.
Many older adults no longer get the benefit of human touch. If you know them well or have gotten their consent, show affection with hugs, holding hands or stroking their arm or back.
Ask if they’d like a gentle backrub or hand massage. Older adults can be fragile, so err on the side of being extra gentle until you know what suits them.
Pay close attention to their face and body language as you respectfully touch them to make sure they continue to be comfortable.
Don’t feel like you have to be overly or falsely cheerful. That can make the visit awkward for both of you. You can still focus on positive and uplifting topics and activities without being fake.
Have you avoided visiting family or friends who are in assisted living or nursing homes because you’re not sure what to say or how to behave? What has helped you overcome your fear or reluctance? Please share in the comments below!