5 Principles of a Good Visit
There's a dirty little secret that none of us are talking about when it comes to visiting our loved ones. Visiting is hard. It is hard for so many reasons, both for us and for them. Be it our parent, grandparent, spouse, or dear friend, often the person we visit seems so different than the person we knew, and understanding the why and what of that is nearly impossible. Our pride, and theirs, can be a wall that prevents us from facing the fact that things have changed, and roles have changed. Often, the person that we are visiting has been an authority figure, and even our caregiver, and now we are taking on some of these traits and neither of us has had time to think about what that looks like. Add on to that memory issues, forgetfulness, a new environment (if they have moved into senior housing), increasing physical limitations and the embarrassment around those limitations, our busy schedules and guilt, and you are in a whole new environment with a whole new set of rules. Figuring out how to get along with this new person, and get to know them again is beyond tricky, but here are six principles to follow to make it a little bit easier and to have a good visit. 1. Make the visit about them. We want to share so badly. We have so much going on with family, work, and life that we want to tell our loved one about. We want to show them pictures of a new baby, talk about our son's graduation, and we want to remind them about Easter dinner next week. We want to share all the things that we think are going to make them proud and engaged in our story, but we forget that they have a story that they are building every day as well. By focusing the visit on them- the little dramas, stories, and updates that they have, we are giving them the gift of importance and relevance. If your person is experiencing memory difficulties and has a caregiver in the home or lives in a senior living community with an Activities Director, use this person as a touch point to find some talking points. Don't try to jog their memory, but use the talking points as a way to connect and drive the conversation. Additionally, don't use visits as administrative sessions. Certainly there are things that you will need to arrange as a caregiver, such as bills, appointments, etc. Set aside a separate time for these things so that they don't interfere with the quality of the visit. For some inspiration, read this Letter from a Mother to a Daughter curated by A Place for Mom. 2. Give appropriate notice. To call ahead or not call ahead? This all depends on your person. For those with even mild memory impairment, it can do more harm than good to give advanced notice of visits. Knowing your person and whether they will worry about the schedule is what is important here. If it makes sense to plan visits ahead of time, ask yourself whether your loved one needs to know about these visits ahead of time or whether they might enjoy a surprise pop-in. If you're worried about them being out or busy when you pop by, this is another great time to coordinate with that caregiver or Activities Director. Be mindful of their schedule. Just because they aren't working doesn't mean that the things that they fill their day with aren't important. 3. Never come empty handed. Bringing something for a visit probably falls under the basic manors that your mom taught you when you were growing up, but the importance of bringing something with you for each visit has more importance now than ever. If you've ever read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, you know that giving gifts is one way that some people show and receive love, but it is also a conversation starter and a meaningful gesture of caregiving. Make the things you bring something you know they love or need, or something you can do together, like a game, art set, or mother-daughter journal. Here are a few of my favorite suggestions.
Games like Apples to Apples, Life Stories, DIY Minute to Win It Games, etc.
Dollar tree items like tissues, air fresheners, snacks and candy, nightlights, crossword books, picture frames, stationery, seasonal decorations, etc.
Books like The Book of Questions, If..., Like Mother, Like Daughter, or anything specific to their past career, their hobbies, passions, and interests.
Joke Jar or Happiness Jar- This is something I created for my grandfather by asking the family to contribute either funny moments, stories, jokes, pictures, etc. and folding each one up and putting them in a jar. I typed up an explanation of what the jar was so that he could take out whenever he wanted.
4. Decide how often you can visit, then drop the guilt. Mother Teresa said “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love is put in the giving.” This is exactly how you should think of the time you dedicate to visiting. Determine how much time you can realistically dedicate to visiting, given your other commitments, your other relationships, and your self care. Once you've determined this and dedicated this time to creating high quality meaningful visits, you have no reason to feel guilty. Take a minute to read this Caregiver Bill of Rights by Jo Horne. 5. The In-between Matters Sometimes it is easy for us to forget that while we are eating lunch, those we love are someplace eating lunch. While we get ready for the day, so are those that aren't physically near us. Remember that your days are just as long as your loved ones, but that they may not seem that way to either of you. What you do between visits matters. Find some way to check in or let them know you are thinking of them when you are not there. Calling is great, but requires some time on your part that may be hard to maintain. Call when you can, but find other ways to connect too. Pix-Star Digital Photo Frames allow you to set up an email account that you and anyone you know can email pictures to directly. The pictures are automatically loaded onto the frame, so the whole family can share the moments in their day with your loved one. Still, my favorite in-between trick is good old fashioned snail mail. Decide that Sunday night will be a time where you fill out 7 little notes to your loved one. You can have the family help, and be creative about what you write. Fill the cards with drawings, jokes, poems, etc. Place the stack of notecards by the front door and each morning put one in the mailbox. This way, each day your loved one has something to look forward to. One thing that those of us who work with your loved ones will never tell you is that we have it so much easier than you do. We meet your loved one as the person they are now, without any back story or expectation of how they used to be. So when you see us relating easily to them, know that it's only because we just met. If you are able to give up the image of who your person used to be and learn to meet them and get to know them as a new person each visit, it will be a game changer.