I had the opportunity to observe family members as they visited with their elderly relatives over the Christmas holidays. They were too often studies in frustration.
In one instance, a daughter was visiting with her mom; she had brought her dog along for the visit. The dog’s activities generated their only conversation. When the dog barked at someone, or sniffed something, or sat up or lay down, that became the topic of discussion for a few brief sentences. Then silence again. The daughter had made time to visit and the mother was eager to visit with her daughter. They had just run out of things to say to each other.
My suggestion for a more satisfying visit for both the visitor and the “visitee” is that you bring something along that holds real interest for the person you are visiting. Objects often have memories associated with them. Bringing along something to share may tap into some memories or experiences that are delightful to share. Finding something to bring poses a challenge. The better you know the person, the easier it is to find something that will open the door for conversation. Here are a couple of ideas on how this would work.
Scenario 1: Your mother used to cook a lot; she misses it now that she lives in assisted living and her meals are prepared for her. When you visit, take some recipe cards, or a magazine with recipes, or a cooking magazine. Use this as a beginning to discuss her cooking secrets, what she didn’t like and what she did, her favorite recipes, how cooking has changed since she was a young girl.
Scenario 2: Your dad used to enjoy traveling. Bring postcards from places he visited, or from places he wanted to visit. Or bring travel magazines. If he is sight-impaired, bring a tape recording of music from places he visited. Some travel films have background music or a commentary. Even if he can’t see the video, he can enjoy the sound. These items can help start a conversation about travel. You might even discuss how to pack, what to take, where to go, where to stay, what plans to make, types of travel, kinds of accommodations, and foreign food. Or the items might bring back memories of trips that your father has taken, and he might enjoy reminiscing about them with you.
It’s not a good idea not to ask questions that demand a specific response; this can be awkward—e.g., “Remember when we went to Colorado for a vacation when I was a kid, Dad? Oh, you don’t? Oh, we didn’t? Mom hated it?” Better to start with something positive, like “I remember going to Colorado on a vacation with you when I was a kid.. Here are some postcards I found that remind me of that summer.” These are statements, not questions. Invite your parent to join in the conversation without demanding a “correct” memory. Some other great places to start an open-ended conversation are, “Look at the sky in this one!” Or, “How would you like to see a place like this?”
The best visits are usually short, particularly when the person you are visiting lives in a long-term care facility. Residents of facilities are often not well enough to enjoy prolonged visits. Rather than sitting for an hour in silence wondering what to say next, shorten the visit so that it ends after you have finished talking about whatever you brought. Both of you have enjoyed the visit, you have communicated love and concern, and your loved one knows that you care. Come again soon, and bring something else to talk about the next time.