Trying to connect with elderly family in nursing homes, maybe through glitchy FaceTime calls and awkward Zooms, was disconcerting at best. Happily, Massachusetts residents can now visit family in long-term care facilities (as long as they adhere to safety rules) as of June 3.
But you might even need an icebreaker with your mom or dad after all this time. What if your loved one is mad, quiet, scared, annoyed? What if you’re not sure what to say or how to act?
I talked to Tammy Retalic, Hebrew SeniorLife chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services, for tips. (Hebrew SeniorLife now allows guests over 18.) Here’s how to make those tentative first visits go smoothly.
Check in with your loved one’s care team a few days before your visit to get a sense of their current mood, abilities, et cetera. Ask about issues such as memory, appetite, physical appearance and social functioning. Can your loved one still engage in activities of daily living? Are they physically active? Remember that many routines, such as group meals or salon visits, might have been upended by COVID-19 restrictions. Without the structure of a usual schedule, your loved one might feel isolated, depressed or resentful. Filter your status report through the lens of the pandemic—the dad who used to love to chat at dinner might be depressed, or the mom who thrived on weekly hair styling might feel self-conscious about her appearance.
Armed with a status report, you can plan a smoother visit: a favorite snack to cheer up dad, a new lotion to perk up mom.
Keep it short and sweet.
Every relationship is different, but Retalic recommends a 20-minute visit at first, because that initial reunion is usually so intense that your loved one’s stamina might lag. (Yours might, too.)
Remember that their anger isn’t about you.
You could end up on the receiving end of questions, anger and frustration, depending on your loved one’s mood and cognitive function: Why didn’t you visit sooner? Where were you? Why was my routine curtailed? Answer honestly and directly—and, if possible, ask a staffer to run interference (and play the bad guy) if things get testy.
Acknowledge their hurt, explain that you’re frustrated by COVID-19 too and then focus on the positive: You’re here now.
“Don’t take it personally,” Retalic says. “And remember that pre-work helps the frustration”—so remember to call before visiting to assess your loved one’s frame of mind.
Think like an actor.
Now’s the time to use facial expressions and props. It might be hard to hear one another behind masks. Facial cues will be muted. Rely on direct eye contact and touch to help replace a smile; it’s OK to fall back on silence instead of groping for muffled conversation.
“Keep it simple,” Retalic says. “It’s OK to simply say, ‘I love you, mom.’ Sometimes, when people try to keep talking, it can make the situation worse.”
And instead of relying solely on small talk, pack some conversation starters—pictures, an iPad to connect with remote grandchildren or a game—to anchor the visit.
“I’ve seen a few recent visits, and they’re really spectacular,” Retalic says. “Even people who are already very emotional” are surprised by the intensity, she says, so don’t be afraid to cry—you might not have seen one another for 12 weeks! Instead of feeling the need to chat and fill time, don’t put too much pressure on yourself if you’re so overcome with feelings that you just need to be quiet at first.
“Don’t expect [the first visit] to be a time when you have to use a lot of words. Be OK with the silence. These are times of gratitude,” she says.