If all goes well, over the next few weeks there will be an increasing number of family members visiting their loved ones in the nursing home, many for the first time in a year. Along with the joy and relief of these reunions, we can expect to observe a great deal of sadness over time lost with elders.
We’re also likely to find distress, as families witness the decline in physical, mental and emotional conditions that have occurred over the course of an extremely stressful period.
In a typical year, this might take place occasionally, such as when out-of-town relatives stop at the nursing home over the holidays. In this circumstance, however, virtually all families will be simultaneously encountering almost a year’s worth of aging.
We can prepare in advance to help ease certain foreseeable elements of this situation.
While many families have connected with their relatives via video chat over the course of the year, they’re bound to observe different aspects of decline when seeing them in person for the first time in many months. One way of setting reasonable expectations might be to tactfully mention this when arranging visitation appointments.
For instance, the staff member might say something like, “It’s been a long and difficult time, but we’re so glad you’ll be able to see your mom.” Or perhaps, “So much has happened since you’ve last seen your dad. We hope you have a good reunion with him.”
The point is not to alarm, or to make any remarks about a specific case, but simply to plant the seed that time has elapsed and that their loved one has weathered a storm.
That being said, we should do our best to ensure that our residents do not literally look like they’ve been shipwrecked, for lack of a haircut.
This is a moment to pay particular attention to resident grooming — hair, nails, clothes — and to dentures and hearing aids. If we haven’t taken care of these basic details, how can families possibly be reassured that we’ve adequately met medical challenges in their absence?
A well-groomed elder will set the stage for a pleasant visit; an unkempt parent will trigger alarm bells.
Even if residents look shipshape, it’s entirely possible that family members will observe changes in their loved ones that may have escaped the notice of beleaguered staff members during quarantine.
We should expect that there will be increased need for relatives to speak with the medical team to answer questions and to pursue new avenues of treatment. It might be wise, if possible, to have a knowledgeable medical professional, such as a physician or nursing director or supervisor, available during visiting hours to immediately address family concerns.
This will allow the family contact to report back to other relatives that the team is addressing whatever issues they have, rather than creating a ripple of anxiety throughout the family system and a flood of phone calls to the facility.
A brief visit with an aging loved one after a year of tumult is likely to be a very emotional experience. If the home hasn’t already established a family support group, this could be a good time to create a virtual meeting space to educate, comfort and reassure them.
Have members of the social work department available post-visit as needed or provide a list of outside psychotherapeutic resources for families as part of a visitors’ information sheet. To soothe frayed nerves, perhaps a local restaurant could offer a free cup of tea or a discount on a meal following a visit to the facility.
Pandemic restrictions have strained relationships between family members and providers of care. We have an opportunity at this juncture to rebuild trust and enhance our reputations by closely attending to family needs. Let’s take advantage and make the most of these happy developments.
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 Bronze Medalist for Best Blog in the American Society of Business Publication Editors national competition and a Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category in their Midwest Regional competition. To contact her for speaking engagements and/or content writing, visit her at EleanorFeldmanBarbera.com.