Assist your friends, family and fellow alums with your
expertise: jot down some of your best ideas for an Alumni Advisor column (like
advice on saving
money, saving face or saving
time, to name just a few) on a subject of general interest and send it to
Were not looking for the next Hemingway and this isnt a term paper,
so dont over do itkeep your composition clean, concise and with purpose
in mind. And the best part isno grade!
Send your contribution to:
201 Mullica Hill Road
Glassboro, NJ 08028
Or, e-mail it to the editor.
A guide for making your visit with loved ones in a nursing home
a pleasant one
By Tobi Schwartz-Cassell ’78
hen I was a little girl, my parents would take my sister
and me to a nursing home to visit our ‘Bubbie’ (grandmother).
It was a scary place. The people who lived there were sick and
not at all happy and it didn’t smell very good. Not only
that, it was boring—for me and for my Bubbie.
Fast forward 30 years and I’m offered a contract to write
a book about long-term care (LTC)—specifically, nursing homes
and assisted-living facilities. I hadn’t stepped foot in
one since last visiting my grandmother.
Two years later, I find myself in a nursing home once again, but
this time to visit my own beautiful mother—my children’s
Bubbie. The facility was worlds better than the one my grandmother
lived in, but no less boring.
According to the AARP, in 2001 there were nearly 1.5 million people
in nursing facilities throughout the United States. Chances are
you’re related to or know an LTC resident. If so, you know
that most of them crave a visit from a friend or relative, but
often, visitors are few and far between. After all, who really
wants to go somewhere they expect to be depressing and boring?
But it is possible to make these visits less depressing, less boring
and—believe it or not—very rewarding.
Even a severely cognitively-impaired person can enjoy some activities
to some degree. It is truly amazing to see someone unable to utter
a sentence, soon perk up and smile. It is possible and it isn’t
difficult. It’s just a matter of introducing some simple
activities that promote mental stimulation. You’ve heard
the expression before: use it or lose it. So instead of dwelling
on what your loved one has lost, help him or her to hold on to
what remains. Here are some practical ways to do it.
Bring a deck of cards, or photographs, either old or new. Bring
a comedy album and a tape or CD player to play it on. When we visit
my father-in-law (who was blinded by a stroke) we bring things
that he can taste and smell. Sometimes we bring his favorite chocolate-coated
cookies. Occasionally we bring soap to him that a dear friend crafted—it
smells like his beloved Key Lime Pie—and it’s guaranteed
to make him smile.
A well-behaved pet is even better than a deck of cards. Just be
sure that he or she is on a leash, doesn’t have a history
of biting and is fully vaccinated. It’s also important to
check with the facility for its pet policy.
When we used to bring my mom’s ‘grand-dogs’ for
a visit, she wasn’t the only one who was delighted to see
them. Many of the other residents would warmly remember the love
they shared with their own pets in the past. The memories evoked
were bittersweet, but decidedly sweeter.
Bring essential oils. You may find some to be beneficial to your
loved one. Sniffing a tissue sprinkled with a few drops of lavender
or orange oil can be very calming. A whiff of marjoram oil has
been known to alleviate insomnia.
Even the most cognitively impaired person can enjoy it. In some
cases, those who are unable to speak are able to sing a little
Be a reporter
Ask questions of your loved one. Chances are, you don’t know
everything about him or her. And even if you do, act like you don’t.
People love talking about themselves. For example, ask your aunt
who her best friend was when she was in elementary school and why
they got along so well. Have your grandfather tell how he asked
your grandmother to marry him.
Ask about their areas of expertise
When I visit my father-in-law, I ask him about aspects of what
he did for a living. It doesn’t matter that his explanations
of his work as a nuclear engineer are way beyond my scope of comprehension.
What’s important is that the topic makes him happy.
When I visited my Mom, I feigned ignorance about some of her best
recipes and asked her to recite them to me. I never minded that
the ingredient proportions were way off, because it was pure pleasure
for both of us when we shared kitchen secrets from my childhood.
Talk about anything and everything
Bring up the most mundane thing that’s going on in your life.
It’s very likely that it’s still more exciting than
what’s happening in the resident’s life. Anything is
fodder for a good conversation. Talk about what your kids are doing,
both in school and after school. Talk about work. Talk about the
class you’re taking or even the price of tomatoes at the
supermarket. To someone whose only daily conversation partner is
the R.N. administering the morning medications, practically anything
is interesting. Keep it light, though. You probably shouldn’t
start a sentence with, “Hey Aunt Bess, you know who just
Many times when you visit, your loved one will be in a day room
with other residents. These folks are just as interested in sharing
conversation. Welcome them into your tête-à-tête
and you’ll be giving them a cherished gift. Try to engage
residents at or near the cognitive level of your loved one to maximize
the experience for all of you.
Ask them what they did before retirement or where they’re
from. Ask if they have children or grandchildren (this question
will almost always spark a conversation). How old are the kids?
Where do they live? What are their hobbies? There could be an added
benefit—the person you included might have a common bond
with your loved one and their conversation could continue even
after you leave.
Many residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities
suffer from short-term memory loss but few of them suffer from
long-term memory loss and that is a blessing.
Though there are companies that produce “reminiscence kits” for
use in LTC facilities, you can easily create one yourself and customize
it for your loved one. Just bring in or talk about anything from
the past. Peruse magazines or surf the net for photos of old products,
TV shows, fashions, religious and political figures. Talk about
news stories from the past. Sing some old songs—even retro
TV and radio commercials will do. The trick is to dislodge the
memories that are stuck and you’ll be amazed at the onslaught
of conversation that ensues.
It doesn’t much matter what you bring or do or say when you
visit someone you love in an LTC facility. I know from experience
that these suggestions will work and that your visits may inspire
new ideas. The goal is to maintain your relationship—or build
one—and help your loved one or friend maintain existing brain
function by playing games, reliving memories or whatever best engages
him or her. If you make just a little effort, you and your loved
one will be enriched beyond the limits any disability or LTC facility
may appear to present.
Tobi Schwartz-Cassell is co-author of Adding Value to
Long-Term Care (Jossey-Bass, 2000) and has written articles for
long-term care trade journals. She spent a combined 20 years doing
news at Philadelphia radio stations WWDB and WPEN and is the owner
of The Word Source, LLC, which produces content for brochures, newsletters,
press releases and websites.