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Why do some people find excuses to avoid nursing home visits?

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

There is little that can cheer a nursing home resident more than a visit by a family member, or even a friend. Yet many good hearted people find excuse after excuse to avoid visiting a parent, grandparent or friend in a facility. Excuses vary with the people and family dynamics, but sometimes the reason is much deeper than the excuse.

I've heard the same excuses repeatedly.

  • "I just can't stand the smell of nursing homes."
  • "I hate seeing all of these old folks just sitting there sleeping. It's too depressing."
  • "I intend to go, but something always seems to come up. I will do it next week, for sure."

There is some truth to all of these excuses, of course. Good nursing homes shouldn't smell like cleaning chemicals or human waste. Cleaning is done, so of course there may be some residual smell. Some elders can't make it to the bathroom on time, so there may be occasional bathroom smells. And, yes, people do sleep in their wheelchairs and and that can be depressing. But those are hardly reasons enough to ignore the need for visits your loved ones who live in a care setting need.

Why Nursing Homes Can Be Difficult

Most people, when attending a funeral and seeing a body in a coffin, have some sense of mortality. But the waxy, impersonal nature of an embalmed body, added to the social pressure to "show your respects," make funeral attendance a more pressing part of life. Besides, you only have to go once.

That may seem crass, but it's true. There is a sense of closure at a funeral. At a nursing home, you are witnessing many people on the eve of their lives, often in conditions which we would, if it were us, consider a state worse than death.

Even if that person sagging over the bar of the wheelchair isn't the loved one you are visiting, you can't help but notice. And if that person is your loved one? If that person with Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia is your mom or dad? That makes it even harder.

Avoiding Nursing Home Visits: Why We Stay Away

So, it's hard. A lot of things in life are hard. It's time to grow up and examine the real reasons why you put off visiting someone who has been a part of our life for years. Someone you care about. The real reasons are often not the lame ones you blurt out in your own defense. They are more subtle.

  • You can't fix it. The person you care about is in a condition you could never have envisioned, and there's nothing you can do about it. You'd rather deny their disease and not have to witness their decline than have to own up to it, so you make excuses.
  • You are seeing your own mortality. Even if you are a healthy 30-year-old man who runs marathons, you see these people who can't walk, maybe even can't talk--people who can't make sense out of anything you say or remember who you are--and a bit of your brain says, "That could be me one day."
  • You feel helpless. You are afraid you may blunder or not know what to say. You know you may be bored and you don't want that to show.

Making a Nursing Home Visit: Steps to Take

  • You take baby steps. When your wife visits her mom, you wait down in the sitting room of the nursing home. You consciously watch people you don't know interacting with residents who may be even worse off than your mother-in-law.
  • You get educated. Instead of flipping TV channels in the evening, you could browse a book on Alzheimer's disease or general aging. Learn how to interact with someone who can't speak. Learn that touch is often enough--you don't have to put on a show. Learn that your presence is really all that is required, though a hug and gently holding a hand is helpful.
  • You let someone else take the lead. If your wife is a good visitor, watch what she does. You may never be able to tend to her mom in the same way your wife does, but that's okay. Watch your wife, learn from her and adapt your style to what you can do.
  • You realize that something is better than nothing. Your physical presence is enough. If your mother-in-law doesn't seem to know who you are, that's okay. If you are bored, that's okay. If you don't stay a full hour, that too is okay. You went. Good for you.
  • You grow. By making yourself take one step at a time, you may find the journey is possible. And when your wife's mom dies and you go to her funeral, you can have the comfort that you did your best.
  • Accept that you, too, will grow old--if you are lucky enough to live that long. Accept that not everything can be cured. Accept the life cycle for what it is, something you cannot change. Everyone who is born will die, and sometimes that process isn't pretty.

Soon you may find that you have grown enough to be proud of yourself. You have accepted life on life's terms, which means that you are ready to admit that not everything is pleasant, and many things can't be fixed.

You want to set an example don't you? You may want visitors if you are the old person sitting in the wheelchair. The people who come to see you can make a huge difference in your very small world. Start modeling for others what you want to see for yourself.