All of us fear finding ourselves unable to care for an aging parent. Maybe your father had a severe stroke and now requires 24-hour skilled care or your mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is a danger to herself if left alone. Such situations leave adult children feeling helpless, frustrated, and guilty at their inability to provide the care their aging parent requires.
There is no question the decisions surrounding nursing home placement of an aging family member are difficult. Financial arrangements must be addressed, decisions about selling property and personal possessions must be made, and an affordable facility which provides quality care must be located. Placing an aging parent in a nursing home, however, does not mean the end of their life or the end of your relationship with them.
Instead of spending valuable energy on feelings of guilt or sadness, use that energy to think of creative ways to let your aging relative know how much you care. When a loved one is adjusting to a new environment, to the loss of personal possessions, and to the challenges of health limitations, it is important to remind them they are still a very cherished part of the family. The following list of ideas may help you with this difficult transition:
- Do not be surprised or distressed if your loved one expresses sadness or even anger during his or her initial transition to a care facility. This can be an extremely emotional time when an adult is forced to give up much of their independence. When most seniors enter a nursing facility they give up personal property, the freedom to make daily decisions about what they eat and wear, who they live and interact with, as well as companion pets and neighborhood friends. Recognize their grief and allow them to vent their emotions even if it is difficult for you to hear.
- It is common for nursing facilities to suggest you refrain from visiting your loved one for at least a week after they first move into their new residence. Although this may seem cruel and difficult to accept, consider the suggestion. By visiting every day you may increase the difficulty your aging parent experiences in adapting to their relocation. They need time to meet new people, learn a new routine, and make personal adjustments. If you are too uncomfortable with this arrangement, follow your own instincts, but be sure you are putting the best interests of your loved one first rather than appeasing your own feelings of guilt.
- Consider writing a letter to the staff of the nursing facility describing the personal history (accomplishments, jobs) family information (birthplace or hometown, marriage, number of children) and personality characteristics (likes and dislikes, a nickname) of your loved one. A letter like this can assist the staff in getting to know your mom or dad by providing conversation topics and emphasizing the personal uniqueness of your family member.
- Help your loved one through this difficult transition by assisting them to form a sense of closure from the life they are leaving behind. Do this by including them in decisions being made about their material possessions and other property items. Even if your loved one must be placed in a facility without ever returning to their home, bring a box of things for them to sort through and let them identify items from home (clothes, pictures, plants, memorabilia) they would like to keep.
- If Mom or Dad is forced to give up a well-loved pet, do not belittle the importance of this relationship. Recognize the significance of this loss and do your best to place that animal in a loving home. Reassure your parent with pictures and notes from the new owner that their beloved friend will be well taken care of in their new home.
It is important to remember that caring for an aging family member does not end when they are placed in a nursing facility. Family members can continue contact through visits, phone calls, and letters to their loved one. There are many ways to express your love and affection to someone who lives in a nursing home. Though it may take commitment, compassion, and a little creativity, it is well worth the effort.