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Many people feel uncomfortable visiting a nursing home. They may be disturbed by the sights, sounds or smells that go along with caring for so many disabled, dependent and older individuals. They may avoid nursing homes because it reminds them that they, too, may need assistance some day. Or, they may fear that their loved one isn't happy and don't feel like they can face her.
None of these excuses changes the fact that nursing home residents have the right to receive visitors and that visits - even from someone they may not know - lift their spirits and can help improve their overall physical condition. Despite needing the skilled care only a facility can provide, residents should feel connected to loved ones and the world beyond the facility's doors. Visits help them feel like they matter and remind them that they are not forgotten just because they don't have the independence they used to.
You can become more comfortable about visiting a nursing home by preparing yourself for the visit. First, recognize that nursing home residents may feel like the staff only sees their physical or medical condition. If you are visiting a loved one, try to learn as much as you can about their condition before you go so you are not surprised by what you may see. Looking beyond their infirmities and limitations will help you - and them - remember that they are a person first and a resident of the facility second. Another thing you can do to ease your anxiety is to find out about activities that go on in the facility and plan to join in. These can include arts and crafts, programs, meals and more. This takes the pressure off of you to find things to talk about and fill the time that you are there. If a loved one is unresponsive and doesn't appear aware of your visit, your touch and presence are still important. Even people with end-stage Alzheimer's disease respond to kindness and affection.
When you visit a nursing facility, remember that it is a home for its residents. As such, you should approach a visit just as if you were visiting them in their own home. Call ahead to check with the resident and the facility to see when would be a good time to visit. Ask about the facility's rules for visits, including visiting hours and whether children and pets are welcome. If you plan to bring food, let the facility know and ask about any dietary restrictions the resident may have. An active flu season this year means that many facilities have changed their visitation policies to limit the spread of contagious diseases. These may include shorter visiting hours and restriction of children under a certain age. If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, do not visit a facility until you are well.
Once you are in the facility, do the same things with her in the nursing home that you would do in her home, such as watching television, playing cards or just sitting and talking. If the resident is receptive, hold her hand, give her hugs when you arrive and when you leave, make eye contact and listen to what she has to say. Bring a little of your world in to share with her, such as photo albums, news items or just stories about what is going on with you and your family. If she is able, take her out of the facility for a while, whether on a trip out to eat or just a walk around the block.
You also need to make your visit count. Most facilities provide excellent care, but staff only can do so much and often are limited to what the resident tells them or what they can easily see through daily care. The resident may tell you things about their condition, their roommate and more that they wouldn't tell staff. Listen to complaints and look for hygiene issues, evidence of neglect or self-neglect and depressed feelings. Assess these situations and work with the nurse supervisor or facility administrator to correct them.
Finally, don't let your visit end when you leave. Make arrangements to come back. Call or write when you can't visit. Ask staff how you can become more involved in your loved one's care, and that of other residents. See if they need volunteers or have a family council you can serve on or ask if you can lead some activities.
One way to stay involved in ensuring your loved one and others receive the best care possible is to join the Advancing Excellence campaign and encourage facility staff to do the same. Advancing Excellence is an initiative of long-term care providers, consumers, advocates, nursing home practitioners, government agencies and more. The campaign helps nursing homes make a difference in the lives of residents and staff. Participants will receive regular updates, information about quality improvement efforts, including those your loved one's home is working on and more.