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Making the most of family visits

Visits between residents and their families are important on many levels. They give
residents something to look forward to. They allow families to keep in touch. They help
ease the pain that the resident and his or her family feel at being separated. And visits
give staff members a chance to involve a resident’s family members in the care of their
loved one.

Unfortunately, family visits are not always easy. Families often don’t know what to do or
say when visiting residents, and they may not be prepared for the changes their loved
one is going through. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help family visits go
more smoothly.

Begin by telling family members what to expect. If a resident’s condition has changed
since the family’s last visit, let them know as soon as they arrive. If it is a family member’
s first time visiting, take a moment to show him or her around the facility and explain
how things work. When family members don’t know what to expect, they get frustrated. A
little communication on your part can really help.

Another way to help families improve their visits is to be understanding. It can be quite a
shock for the whole family when the resident moves into a nursing home. Guilt, grief,
anger, and loneliness are just a few of the many emotions that may be coming to the
surface at this time. Residents and family members alike will need a caring person to
listen to them. Even if they seem angry at you, understand that they are probably just
angry at the situation. See through the anger to the love that’s causing it. When you
allow residents and families to vent their feelings to you, they will not have to vent them
at one another.

You can also improve visits by talking to families about scheduling. “Any time” is not
always a good time to plan a visit. The best visits take place when residents are fresh
and alert, and when there will not be interruptions. Here are some tips for planning
visits at the right time:

  • Mealtimes are good times to visit if the family plans to stay for the meal. If the
    family will not share the meal, they should visit at a different time.
  • Family members should not visit during daily care routines, unless they plan to
    help with daily care. Staff members who come in to assist the resident will
    interrupt the visit.
  • If a resident participates in certain activities, families should not plan visits for
    those times unless they, too, will take part in the activity. The resident shouldn’t
    have to choose between a favorite activity and a family visit.
  • If there is a time of day when the resident complains of being bored or lonely,
    this may be a good time of day for families to visit.
  • Special events around the facility, such as parties and holiday gatherings, are
    good times for visits. The resident may want to introduce his or her family
    members to other residents and staff, and special occasions are more
    meaningful when loved ones can share them.

Even when families know what to expect during their visit and come at a good time for
the resident, a visit still may not go smoothly. “What do we talk about?” and “What
should we do?” are common questions families have. Here are some ways they can
make visits more meaningful.

Perhaps the most important way to improve family visits is to help them end well.
Leaving is usually the hardest part of the visit, for both the resident and the family. It can
help if family members plan to end a visit just as a resident is heading off to do
something else, such as a favorite activity program or a meal. Families should tell
residents when they will be back for another visit.
Leaving gifts, cards, treats, and pictures behind are ways to show the resident that he
or she is loved and missed. Families can also send cards and letters in the mail and
make phone calls between visits. For residents with dementia, leaving behind a tape of
video messages for the resident to watch can be helpful.
Visits may be the only remaining link between residents and their families, so it is
important for staff members to help them go as well as possible.

Source: Adapted from Quality Care in the Nursing Home¸ by John N. Morris, PhD, et al.
St. Louis, MO: Mosby-Year Book.

Questions to think about:
1. What suggestions do you have for families when they visit?
2. How can you help a resident who is upset because her family has just left?