You’re back in your hometown for the holidays and you go to visit your Great Aunt Hilda at her nursing home. You give her a box of chocolates, ask how she’s doing, show her pictures of your kids, tell her a story about your new puppy…uh, discuss the weather…look at your watch. Seven minutes. Really, seven minutes into the visit and you’re out of things to talk about?
You could ask what’s new with Hilda, but you know her life is pretty static. Maybe the podiatrist was around last week and everyone got their toenails trimmed. But there’s only so much ground you want to cover on that topic. So what do you talk about? How can you pass the time pleasantly?
Here’s one idea:
Conversation starter cards. There are a variety of sets. This one happens to be what I own. Since I suffer from a generalized case of social awkwardness, I use them in different settings. I don’t always take the box along, often simply looking through it for ideas before I’m in a conversation-making situation. My kids and I have read through the cards on road trips. They can be fun to use with a group, especially a multi-generational one. I’ve taken the box with me when visiting my mom and it made for some good discussions. There are questions such as “Are there any unusual food combinations you like?” and “What’s the longest trip you’ve ever taken?”
This could lead to interesting reminiscences. I’ve heard some tantalizing tales about my mom’s life that were new to me. You might want to be ready to take notes, or even record the conversation for posterity.
Another idea is to take a deck of cards or simple board game with you. By the time someone’s in a skilled nursing facility, they’re probably not going to be with it enough to play duplicate bridge, but Crazy 8s might not be out of the question. Or checkers.
If you have a tablet and you know there’s an Internet connection, you can bookmark some short on-line videos and share them. Who doesn’t love to watch cute baby animals doing adorable things?
You could have an informal literary discussion. Bring a poem or short short story to read aloud and talk about it.
These are all ideas that have gone well for me. If anyone else has suggestions, I’d love to see them in the comments.
My sister-in-law loves to send postcards. In addition to picking up new cards when traveling, she finds vintage stock at antique stores. My kids have enjoyed getting mail over the years, and examining the pictures on the front sides. Now she sends cards to my mom.
We’re fortunate to have a large extended family, even if none of them live in town. So a lot of people send cards to my mom. It’s sweet and picks up her spirits, knowing she’s not forgotten.
However, her fine motor skills and finger strength have degraded over time, so that even the act of opening an envelope can pose a challenge for her. She’s been known to save mail for a day or two until I visit, so I can open it for her. Postcards don’t present this problem. They arrive ready to read and enjoy the artwork.
True, there’s a lack of privacy, with the words there for anyone to see. But most of the cards Mom receives have no private information included anyway. And to be honest, not much is private in a skilled nursing setting.
I suggest more folks start sending postcards to their elderly relatives, especially the ones in poor health. They’re less expensive than greeting cards, both for the product and the postage. They often include a scene and a piece of information about it that can be a topic of interest and new information for the recipient. And they’re easy to tape or pin up for decoration.
As soon as I have time, I plan to hit a local antique store myself to see if I can score a handful. My mom’s not the only senior citizen amongst my relatives.
One thing you don’t get in a skilled nursing facility is a lot of space. My mom’s shared room reminds me of my dorm in college, including the bathroom that’s also used by the residents in the next bedroom over. Mom has the bottom half of a two-tiered wardrobe for hanging clothes plus whatever can sit on the shelf below them. She also has three dresser drawers, some counter space, her bed, of course, a recliner, a two-drawer nightstand and a high shelf attached to the wall. We provided her a footstool that doubles as a storage bin.
Mom has very few of her possessions actually with her. Many are at my house, and others are with my oldest sister. Since I’m nearest geographically now, I got custody of Mom’s cherished bells.
She’s collected bells for years. You never had to think too hard on gift-giving occasions. If you couldn’t come up with anything else, she’d always love another bell. Some are glass, some porcelain, some pewter. Some commemorate places or events. I think she owns around 100 altogether. She and I decided she had room for three on her shelf. This is not only an issue of space; it’s also an issue of keeping track of things in a setting where all sorts of people are coming and going and the door to her room remains unlocked. I’ve used permanent marker to put her name inside each bell. If one does wander away somehow and then turn up later, we’ll know it’s hers because it’s labeled.
When we were first getting Mom settled and discussing what she could/should have with her in the room, my sister was the one who pointed out to us that Mom could still have all of her bells, just not all at once. It could be a rotating collection. Brilliant! I work in a library. I’m familiar with this concept.
Every couple of weeks I dig into the boxes in my spare bedroom and bring Mom a different bell, then take one from her room back to my house. This gives us something to talk about, too. She can tell me what she remembers about where she got each one, or who gave it to her. We’ve taken some nice strolls down memory lane, prompted by a starting bell.