Now that my mom is in a nursing home, how can I make the most of my one-hour visits with her?

A fellow caregiver asked...
I visit my mom, who's very frail after a stroke, for an hour every few days. She has dementia, but she's always pleased to see me. Still, I find that I'm not sure what to do while I'm there. We chat a little and then often lapse into silence. When I ask her if she wants to play cards or take a walk around the facility, she's willing, but she never initiates anything. I want to make the most of our time together, but I'm not sure how to do it.

Expert Answer

David Solie is an author, educator, speaker, and thought leader in geriatric and intergenerational communication. His book How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap With Our Elders is a landmark text that has been read and reread by legions of baby boomers searching for a better approach to working with their parents and other older adults.

It's often difficult for adult children to adjust to the changes in their relationship with an elderly parent, but it's especially difficult when the parent has dementia. As hard as it is to reconcile your mom today with the dynamic, take-charge person you once knew, she's still your mother, and she needs you now more than ever. It may be hard to believe when she forgets what you just said or hardly speaks during your visit, but you can be sure that she looks forward to seeing you and that your presence is a source of comfort and reassurance to her.

Having said that, it's important to have realistic expectations about your time together. As a middle-aged adult, you're used to making the most of every minute in your busy schedule and measuring your experiences in terms of goals met and tasks accomplished. Try to put your to-do list aside during your visits to the nursing home and simply enjoy your time with your mother.

Your visits can take a variety of forms, depending on the day and your mother's inclinations. If she's up to it, your mother may want to go for a short walk or a drive to get some fresh air and a change of environment. If she has trouble feeding herself, you may want to schedule your visits for mealtimes, so you can feed her. She may enjoy a backrub or foot massage. Or you could give her a manicure or do her hair. If your mother has always loved books, try reading to her.

Encourage your children to visit too, and to send cards and drawings. Bring photos of friends, children, and grandchildren, as well as pictures from the past. You can tell your mother what's going on in your life, but don't feel obligated to fill the time with idle chit-chat. You mother may be content to sit quietly with you without saying much, and that's just fine.

In the end, you can make the most of your visits simply by showing up and being there. It's time you'll never regret spending.