Using psychology to reduce roommate conflicts: A handy guide

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Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D.

   

“My roommate is driving me crazy with his oxygen machine. I haven't slept in days.”

 

“Her husband stays in the room all the time, even when she's in rehab.”

 

“She always leaves the window open and I'm freezing!”

These are some of the many complaints about roommates I've heard from residents over the years. While some roommate difficulties need to be addressed on a situation-by-situation basis, most conflicts revolve around a few basic issues.

Here's a handy guide to conflicts and potential resolutions to print out and give to staff members involved in making room assignments.

•       Temperature of the room: Have the person who likes it colder or hotter by the window/air conditioner/radiator so they are closest to the source. The temperature in the hallway will moderate the atmosphere around the bed near the door. Give extra blankets to those who like to be warm but have a roommate who likes it cool. Or change rooms so that people who like similar conditions room together.

•       Noisy medical equipment: Someone with such needs might do better living with a hearing impaired roommate or a sound sleeper or being moved to a private room if it's a temporary condition.

•       Frequently visiting family members: While visiting hours have been expanded in many facilities, it doesn't mean they need to take place in a resident's room, especially if it's disturbing to others. It may be necessary to distinguish between facility visiting hours and in-room visiting hours and to refer families to alternative locations for visits, such as a lounge. Family members can be directed to wait in common areas if their loved one is not in their room.

•       Loud televisions: Setting a time (such as 10 p.m.) to lower the volume on TVs and to turn out lights that aren't in use will help with sleep hygiene on the floors in general and will reduce conflict between roommates (because it's "policy" and not personal). Those who want a loud television can use a headset or be moved to a room with a hearing impaired roommate.

•       Night-time care needs: Staff can make an effort to be quiet at night, to use just the amount of light needed, and turn it off when finished, and to switch non-essential night-time care to morning or evening care to avoid disturbing residents and their roommates. Residents with such needs might be best with a sound-sleeping roommate or can be moved to a private room during a period of heavy care. Roommates might also consider wearing earplugs or sleep masks if they otherwise enjoy their companion.

•       Personality conflicts: It can be helpful for each roommate to speak with the social worker, nurse, or psychologist and share their concerns privately and then have a mediation session together if warranted and the staff member feels able to handle the interaction. The focus is generally on understanding each other's perspective and on finding a compromise in areas of conflict. Often, personality conflicts stem from varying expectations of what the roommate relationship will be like. For example, some people are hoping for a buddy and others want nothing to do with their roommate, whoever they might be.

•       General dissatisfaction: Some residents point out specific concerns, but every effort of the staff to resolve them is unsuccessful. This may be because they're having difficulty adjusting to the loss of their independent lifestyle and the need for a roommate at all. Such residents may benefit from referral to the psychologist and the opportunity to address their losses in a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, the author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is an accomplished speaker and consultant with over 16 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care. This blog complements her award-winning website, MyBetterNursingHome.com, which has more on how to create long-term care where EVERYBODY thrives.

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