Communicating with your Family Member in a Nursing Home

  1. Be attentive to how you begin the visit: It is amazing what a difference a simple smile and a “hello” can make.  Hugs, and handshakes are other good ways to let your loved one know “I am here.”
  2. Be Present: Sit down on the same level, and make sure you do not appear hurried, even if you know you only have a little bit a time.  Do your best to let go of whatever else is going on in your life and really focus on your loved one for whatever time you have together.  Nonverbal communication is essential: eye contact and an open, relaxed posture show your family member that you are here for them.  Fidgeting, checking your phone, etc. may cause them to feel you do not really want to be there.
  3. Treat your family member with respect. This can be really hard to do if they have dementia, are losing control of their bodily functions, or are acting out like a small child.  Breathe deeply.  Remember that your mother, father, aunt, uncle, brother, or sister is in there. Remember back to the person there were before, and how much you respected them then.  If we are fortunate to live long enough, we all hope that people will continue to respect us too.
  4. Understand that if this is your mother or father, the reversal of roles (you being their caregiver) is going to be very difficult for all involved. It may lead to feelings of anger, pride, or shame.  It is important to sensitive to this, and to accept from the beginning that this is not going to be an easy journey. Neither you nor your parent is going to do a perfect job, and that’s ok.
  5. Try not to take it personally if your family member is irritable or argumentative with you. They may be unhappy with their situation, and may take it out on you. It’s not your fault.  Do your best to listen empathetically and to validate their concerns.  If things become too much on a particular visit, or if you know you are not in a position to be patient, it may be best to end the visit early and return as soon as possible on another day.
  6. Do your best to become comfortable with dementia: Sometimes people with dementia talk in circles, repeat themselves, and/or say things that you know no not to be true. Patience and positivity will be key.  Also, there is no need to contradict them if, for instance they say it is snowing outside when you know it is a hot summer day.  Perhaps in their world it is snowing!
  7. Be sure to have some visits that are simply social. It’s easy to get caught up in strictly “administrative” tasks during your visits, such as “What do you need from the store?  How was the food today?  Are you getting your pills?  Is there anything you need me to talk to the administrator about?”  Those things are important, but having an unhurried casual visit might be even more desirable and beneficial to your loved one.
  8. Set a schedule, and coordinate with other family members. Be specific and don’t be afraid to ask things like: “I’m going to visit mom on Mondays and Wednesdays after work; can you visit her Friday on your lunch break? John says he will go by every Sunday after church.  That way she will get 4 visits each week.”
  9. Consider reaching out to friends and neighbors that knew them well and asking if they would be willing to visit. A visit from a friend can bring great joy to a nursing home resident.
  10. Be strong and don’t stop visiting. We may all reach a point in our lives in which we are elderly/disabled and need to spend time in a care facility. We all hope that somebody cares enough to come visit us.