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Tips for enhancing your visits with an older adult

by Kathryn Kilpatrick M.A. CCC/SLP

Life is precious and when a loved one has some communication problems, increased frailty or less interest in doing things. Many of us struggle to figure out how to make the most of the time spent together.

Life is precious and when a loved one has some communication problems, increased frailty or less interest in doing things. Many of us struggle to figure out how to make the most of the time spent together.

What often can happen in these cases is that the frequency of the visits declines, or the visits become shorter. Sometimes television programs become the focus of the time spent together. We want to connect, but what came naturally before just does not seem to flow like it used to.

Many of these older adults were from the generation that often wrote and received letters to stay in touch. They would usually spend time on the front porch or sit around the kitchen table and share their stories. They were more likely to linger. Do you notice any changes recently? Are they are just listening, with little participation, especially at larger gatherings? If there are hearing, speech or memory problems, you can probably count on it. The pace is so much quicker now, and some describe it as impersonal. Just watching their loved ones using the technology of today may seem so out of place in the world where they spend most of their time. If we take a moment to step back, perhaps there is something we can learn as we listen to what they are trying to tell us, perhaps not in certain words but through their actions or lack of them. How can we be more present, and create some meaningful time together? How can we meet them where they are?

Be Mentally Present When Visiting

During one of my therapy sessions last year with a client in an assisted living, I noticed a son visiting his mom at lunch. What a wonderful opportunity to enjoy time with her and her friends, or so I thought. He spent most of his time on his cell phone conducting business. Perhaps it was necessary, but I wonder what she was thinking or feeling? I hope he stayed after the lunch to visit with her.

When I went to visit my mom in her assisted living in another state, I tried to stay focused on why I was there. It was important for me share meals with her and her new friends, listening to and encouraging stories. It was so interesting to get to know them, many over a period of a year or more. Each of us might want to think about those visits and if there are some changes we might want to make. It is easy to become caught up in our busy world, rushing from one thing to another on our to-do list. Is your visit just something to check off on your list? Does our loved one see us as just rushing in and out, taking care of whatever needs to be done, but not really just being together and lingering for awhile?

We all do it from time to time, myself included. And sometimes taking care of other matters may be necessary. Since I took time off from my therapy position and traveled out-of-state to see my mom, I was able to manage my other work-related responsibilities here and there during the day. I tried not to let it interfere with our plans. I can remember the day, however, when I caught myself preoccupied and not really listening. I was trying to tune out her telling me how to do something I had been doing for decades on my own and I was annoyed but I knew she was just being " my mom." What ran through my mind was what might happen in the future. If she had more hearing, memory and communication problems, I would probably be yearning for those good old days when were were able to have any kind of conversation. With that, I got back to a better place of awareness, and it stayed with me from that time on.

Spend Personal Time Before Bringing Up Sensitive Topics

Here is something to think about if your visit also includes discussing some important concerns. An attorney called me one day to share one of his client's frustrations. The son wanted his dad to discuss planning for the future, including issues like health care and financial Power Of Attorney, but was not having any success. Without knowing any of the details, I asked whether or not he was spending quality time visiting his dad, maybe doing one of his dad's favorite activities. If he was just coming in for a quick visit to handle business rather than spending quality time with his dad, I suggested that the son might want to reconsider his approach before trying some of those more challenging conversations.

When a loved one has memory or hearing loss, how do you help them engage in mentally stimulating activities? Families and friends are delighted when a person who previously spent more time sleeping or watching television begins to show interest in other things. Participation is more likely when activities are modified to the appropriate level of difficulty, taking their interests into consideration. Here are a few things to consider first and look for my upcoming blogs on this topic for more detailed recommendations.

  1. Activities are everywhere and can provide opportunities for socialization, conversations and some smiles. Sometimes the most enjoyable time together could be a spontaneous happening, not a major planned event.
  2. Knowing their story helps you to link the activities to previous interests. Do not forget about a person's spiritual interests. Also remember that pets and children can help to change the interest level for some older adults.
  3. Stimulate their senses. It could be familiar music or just the smell of person's favorite food that can generate some memory sharing.
  4. Build on the person's strengths. Modifications may be needed. When an older adult can no longer enjoy reading books, doing their favorite word puzzles, or writing letters, there may be other options. Reading shorter and large print stories, doing a puzzle together with someone, copying a short sentence or two on a card they want to send for a special occasion may be ways to simplify that favorite activity.
  5. The older adult may have difficulty organizing or initiating some of their favorite activities, even those that are modified. You may be surprised at how successful the activity can be if you help them get started and provide assistance when they are not sure what to do next.
  6. Reminiscing is often more of interest than current events. Photographs from the past, old television programs and movies may open the door to some pleasurable time together and bring up stories you may not have heard before.
  7. Build on the things that work and try other modifications if you see there is some interest. You might need to offer more assistance, slow the pace or do it for shorter periods of time.

Remember it is about sharing time together rather than striving for perfection.