Parenting: Nursing Home Visits

The Murphy kids visiting their granpop's nursing home.

With the proper approach, a visit to see elderly relatives in assisted living environments can be a positive experience for kids.
April 13, 2011 7:10:55 AM PDT
With the proper approach, a visit to see elderly relatives in assisted living environments can be a positive experience for kids.

The majority of us will live out our days in our homes or apartments, and will need only a degree of assistance for the vast majority of our lives. But many families have at least one or two elderly members who require assisted living, which immediately introduces the possibility of isolation, especially from the younger children in their lives. Some parents may feel uncomfortable exposing their kids to a nursing home environment. Others may worry about their children being disruptive.

In the Murphy family, we confronted this dilemma when my late father, a Parkinson's patient, required escalating levels of assisted living care, as his physical and mental abilities began to erode. At the time, I had two kids, and the oldest was only a preschooler. I began visiting my dad on my own at first to scope things out, but decided to include my children relatively quickly---and not for reasons you'd necessarily expect. Early on, when my father was usually still able to communicate lucidly, I felt it was important to take advantage of interactions with his grandchildren while he could still recognize them. But oddly, as time went on, I found there was still value in the interaction, even on days when it wasn't clear whether he knew who they were. What remained obvious was that, regardless of the level of connection, he still enjoyed their visits, his face almost always lighting-up when they came scrambling around his bed or wheelchair, more so than when there were only adults in the room.

A Way To Help

The Legacy Project has a great article covering this ground. In short, it quotes assisted living professionals who say the value in these visits is real, even if the elderly don't remember them later on. Anything that stimulates the mind and breaks up the routine of nursing home life has physical and mental benefits. Few things stimulate better than kids. There may also be a reverse effect. Some industry professionals say exposing kids to a nursing home, particularly when they are in grade school, can help them learn about people different than themselves, and ramp-up their compassion. Many kids, the Legacy article claims, quickly become comfortable in this environment, and grow to enjoy giving their time to elderly residents. Some homes even have programs where kids can sign-up for regular visits to help cheer those living there, even if they have no relatives in residence.

Prep Work

Before taking a child to a home, whether it's to visit a grandparent or people they don't know, it's a good idea to talk about what they'll likely find there: people in wheelchairs, unusual smells, and certain residents who may be unable to talk or respond. The Legacy article includes a series of books a parent and child can read to help pave the way for a better understanding. Here's the list: A Little Something by Susan V. Bosak; Sunshine Home by Eve Bunting; My Grandma's in a Nursing Home by Judy Delton; Loop the Loop by Barbara Dugan; Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox; Always Gramma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; Remember That by Lesléa Newman; A Visit to Oma by Marisabina Russo; Old People, Frogs and Albert by Nancy Hope Wilson. For general visits, a call to a senior living establishment's Activities Director is advised at least a couple of weeks in advance. Some actually like to schedule the visits ahead of time, so that they can be put on a calendar and anticipated by the residents. Children can also bring gifts to the guests, including handmade cards and letters.

If it's a relative you're visiting, less formality is necessary. But gifts are still a good idea, and regular visits are better than a few intermittent drop-ins between lengthy gaps. Having said this, if your relative's residence is far from home, visits can be difficult, and to this day, I wish I had been able to overcome that barrier more often with my dad. But he always seemed grateful on some level, whenever the kids and I would arrive, even in his last months, as he was having more difficulty focusing. As for the kids, they suffered no ill-effects. On the contrary, the experience led to an heightened interest in people and in life, and we had plenty of constructive conversations after our time spent at the home. To this day, my daughter, now an adult, still has memories of the visits, and these serve as a connection to a long lost granddad she barely knew in any other venue. She's glad to have had the exposure, as it adds depth and richness to the stories of him that survive in family lore.

---David Murphy

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