Dr. Eleanor Barbera

In his Dec. 6 McKnight’s Senior Living column, Editorial Director John O’Connor reported on a senior living center in Jiangsu province in China that offers cash rewards to people who visit their loved ones. Ten visits in a two-month period led to the equivalent of about $10; thirty visits brought about $29.

The result? The number of residents receiving regular visitors jumped from 10% to about half, no doubt making a huge impact on the lives of the residents and on the culture of the facility.

While this “positive reinforcement” obviously can be very valuable — and I agree with O’Connor’s alternatives to cash such as gift cards or entry into a raffle for a local restaurant — there’s a lot we can do to make family visits inherently more rewarding.

When long-term care providers accept the role of teachers, we can add great value to our services and enhance the experiences of the families who come to us for assistance.

The reality is that many relatives have no idea how to best engage with their loved one in long-term care.

Visitors often ask questions in ways that lead to frustration or embarrassment rather than the heart-to-heart they’re seeking. A television blaring in the background can make it difficult to maintain a conversation. Family members trying to do the right thing by visiting are met with disappointment and frustration rather than joyful connection. When visits don’t go as hoped, it can create what feels like punishment instead of reward.

Take a moment to listen to the comments of the visitors on the way out the door this holiday season. Look at their expressions. Do people seem satisfied with their visits or can more be done to create a pleasant experience? Astute administrators and nursing directors might overhear remarks such as, “Dad didn’t hear a thing I was saying,” or, “She couldn’t remember anything. I didn’t know what to say to her.”

Family visits can be vastly improved with some basic tools and education. Here are some ideas for this year and next:

•  Send a memo reminding nursing staff to equip residents with their eyeglasses (cleaned) and hearing aids (with fresh batteries). This is important every day but especially valuable when family members are likely to be visiting.

•  Set out a variety of magazines, puzzles and games for families to use during their visits.

•  Download and print out free family info sheets for the front desk so visitors know what to do with the puzzles and games by the nursing stations and have additional ideas to make the most of visits.

•  Discuss ways to enrich family interactions as part of an ongoing family education series.

•  Add a section on the topic to your website.

•  Send out info to families via a newsletter prior to the holidays. If you missed it this month, have something ready for Mother’s Day.

Long-term care providers can help families adjust their expectations and the ways in which they approach their older relatives.

We can be the experts who teach them how to be present for their loved ones despite changes in the resident’s abilities, the places that care for the whole family, and the nursing homes they recommend to others going through the same experience.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Gold Medal blogger in the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with more than 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.