I was right behind a wheelchair-bound woman as she struggled to get up a carpeted ramp inside a nursing home. Wanting to be helpful, I instinctively reached out to push her up the gentle incline.

“Don't touch my wheelchair!” she suddenly shrieked in a voice loud enough to make heads swivel in my direction. I apologized and scurried away as quickly as possible.

I could have avoided my faux pas by simply asking the woman for permission before I started pushing her wheelchair. After many years of visiting long-term care facilities, I've found that some residents feel strongly about doing certain things on their own—even if it requires considerable effort.

It makes sense. They've given up their homes for a new lifestyle where they have little control over their schedules. No wonder some carefully guard the few things they're able to do without help from anyone else.

Despite the mistakes we may make, residents are usually thrilled to have visitors, even those they've never met before. Some have no family members or friends living close enough to visit often. Perhaps they've outlived them. No matter how lovely their new surroundings may be or how many interesting programs the facility offers, residents will likely feel lonely at times. Your visit may be the highlight of their day.

That being said, visitors may be concerned about saying or doing the wrong thing during a visit, especially if they're visiting people they don't know. Here are six suggestions that can help your visit go more smoothly:

Keep your visit fairly short unless the resident indicates otherwise. You don't know if the person you're visiting has been up for some time and is tired, or is not feeling up to par that day. “Take your cue from the person. Sitting down and engaging with them is more important than the amount of time,” says Salvation Army Major Caroline Braddock, a member of the chaplaincy team at the Meighen Health Centre in Toronto.

Knock, knock? Laura McAlevy, director of volunteers at Parkhouse, a 450-bed facility in Royersford, Pennsylvania, reminds visitors to respect residents' privacy by knocking on the door of their rooms and asking if they may come in. Doors should be left open during the entire visit, she adds, and visitors should avoid sitting on the bed unless they are family members. “It's also important for visitors to wash or sanitize their hands before and after their visits,” she cautions.

Be careful about physical contact. Before I give a hug or a handshake, I try to determine if the resident is comfortable about hugging or can shake hands without pain. I've found this especially true in a group setting, such as when I'm participating in a church-sponsored service attended by people I may not have met before. In one geriatric centre that I visit, the residents sit in a circle, and members of our group greet them individually as they arrive. However, I don't automatically shake hands unless a person reaches out a hand to me first. Instead, I'll gently place a hand on a shoulder or upper arm as we exchange greetings.

Focus on the person you're visiting. This is not the time to be distracted by the room's furnishings or the TV program that's on. But if you spot something that seems to have special meaning, such as a framed trophy, medal or family picture, be sure to ask about that. Major Braddock states that some residents may start chatting right away, but if they don't, she suggests asking about where they grew up or what they did for a living. “Tell me about … ” questions are good conversation starters. A sincere, positive attitude and a ready smile are always welcome.

Use your memory. If you visit a facility on a regular basis, try to remember the names of the residents you meet at a service or when dropping by their rooms. To jog your memory, look for names on wristbands, wheelchairs or walkers. We all like to hear our names, and nursing home residents are no different. Speak in a firm, clear voice, but don't shout unless residents indicate that they're hard of hearing. Fortunately, this isn't usually a problem during group services and events since most facilities have microphones and sound systems.

Pray as you go. God, through prayer, will prepare the way for your visit. He will give you wisdom and guidance, and He will bring to mind comforting words to say. Remember that those who live in nursing homes, whatever their age or physical condition, have the same cares, fears and worries as anyone else. Share some of your own life story by telling how God has helped you through difficulties. You'll be following what the Bible says about the God “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). That's not only a promise for us, but also for those we visit in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.


On Friday, May 30, 2014, Holly Murs said:

It can be frustrating when residents don’t seem as receptive as you expect them to when you visit a nursing home. But we need to remember that they are going through a lot of adjustments. And it’s great how you pointed it out in this post. I also love your suggestions on how to properly interact with residents during visits. This is a great read and people need to be aware of the issues you tackled here so we featured it in our Weekly Digest. You can read it here ltcoptions.com/weekly-digest-strategies-retirement-caregiving/.

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