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Visiting nursing home residents can benefit both young and old

We should value all ages in our communities, from the very young
to the very old. But the oldest old
in nursing homes and assisted living facilities often feel isolated and excluded. Developing stronger connections between these older adults and their community can have tremendous benefits for young and old. Even older adults with serious memory loss or cognitive limitations can still enjoy a visit, even if they don't remember it later. Elementary-aged children, especially those in fourth to seventh grades, often value the opportunity to make a difference in an older person's life. They are eager to help in a nursing home once they become comfortable. They learn how to interact with people different than themselves and they learn responsibility – because the older people depend on them.

While a single visit to a nursing home is a valuable experience for children and will brighten the day for older adults, an ongoing visitation program is most effective. Said one staff member in a nursing home, "We don't want it to be 'let's go see the old people' just like it's a trip to the Statue of Liberty." An ongoing series of visits allows the understanding and trust to develop which are essential for a real connection between people of any age.

Before children visit a nursing home, you may want to read and talk about some of these storybooks:
A Little Something by Susan V. Bosak; Sunshine Home by Eve Bunting; My Grandma's in a Nursing Home by Judy Delton; Loop the Loop by Barbara Dugan; Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox; Always Gramma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; Remember That by Lesléa Newman; A Visit to Oma by Marisabina Russo; Old People, Frogs and Albert by Nancy Hope Wilson.

Talk about what to expect during a visit to a nursing home (e.g. residents in wheelchairs, unfamiliar smells, some residents may not seem responsive, etc.). Answer any questions or concerns children may have. Talk about their feelings about visiting older adults. Many older people never have visitors and spend their days alone and lonely. Why do you think this is? Do you think it's because we don't want to think about growing old? Why or why not? Have you ever been in a nursing home or other seniors' care facility? How did you feel?

Now plan a visit to a nursing home or other seniors' care facility near you. Some general tips:

  • Be sure to plan a visit at least two weeks in advance. Let the activities director know you're coming. They can often suggest the residents who would most welcome a visit (some older adults are in higher care units than others).
    The best times to visit are generally mid-morning from 10:00-11:30 am, in the afternoon from
    2:00-4:30 pm, and sometimes in the evening from 6:00-7:30 pm.
  • Since visitors may be rare, the activities director will probably put your visit on the calendar of events so that residents can look forward to it.
  • Babies and toddlers who are full of grinning energy make good visitors, as do older children and teenagers. For toddlers, make sure they've had a nap beforehand and are fed.
  • You can make the visit informal, just talking with and moving to various residents one-on-one, or you can plan to do a presentation like a short play or a series of songs (you can even invite residents to participate in familiar songs by singing along or clapping).
  • Children can also bring gifts for the residents, like drawings or colorful, handmade cards. Or work on a project beforehand like making a scrapbook of funny cartoons (which children have either drawn or cut out of the newspaper) to share with residents. Other appropriate gifts for special occasions include live flowers, a colorful lap blanket or pillow, and warm, soft slippers (with a good tread) or sweaters. If you want to bring food, make sure you clear it with staff beforehand.
  • If you're going to be visiting with specific people, learn something about them beforehand – their interests, background, limitations, and needs. And although some behavior may seem childlike, remember that older adults are adults, not children. Acknowledging a person's personal history and lifetime of experiences is what allows older adults to maintain their respect, dignity and, often, their connection to the world around them.
  • Remember that the care facility is home to the older adults and you should respect their privacy and living space as much as possible. When you're entering a room, even if the door is open, knock first.
  • One-on-one visits will vary. You may find residents in the lobby, hallway, garden, community room, as well as their individual rooms. Start a conversation by introducing yourself casually: "Hello. My name is… Would you like me to visit with you today?" Some people may not want to visit, but most will say yes. Your interaction will be short or long depending on the person. Even a few minutes can brighten a resident's day.
  • During one-on-one visits, children may need some gentle encouragement to get past their shyness. An adult like a parent or teacher can lead in some questions to get the interaction going. For example, children can talk about what they like to do in school, or what hobbies they have or sports they play in. This might lead into questions about sports or hobbies the older adult might be interested in, or their memories of their schooldays. Young children might bring a favorite stuffed animal to "introduce" to residents.
  • Don't be in a hurry. Most residents have time on their hands and your visit will probably seem short no matter how long you stay.
  • Don't feel obligated to solve the personal problems of a resident. Just being there to listen and empathize is important.
  • At the end of each conversation, before you move on to visit with the next person, thank the resident for spending time with you. You can shake their hand or offer to give them a hug. If a person doesn't want you to leave, try to get them involved in another activity, take them to be with a group of people, turn on the television, or place something in their hands like a small memento that they can hold on to.
  • Keep promises. Don't promise to return if you aren't able to come back. Never say anything unless you mean it.

After a first visit to a nursing home, talk about what happened and how children felt. Do you think you made a difference in the lives of the residents? Why? What did you learn about older people? Do you think visiting older people is important? Why?

One of the biggest barriers to young and old coming together is often difficulties communicating. They may not know what to say to each other, feel uncomfortable, or are unsure about how to make a meaningful connection. A great introduction to communication in general is Aliki's storybook Communication. It explores the many forms and aspects of human communication and is a good starting point for intergenerational communication. You can then read through the Tips for Communicating With Cognitively Limited Older Adults.

For older adults with few functional limitations, reading a picture book with a child can be a great icebreaker. Reading takes the pressure off both young and old to "entertain" each other. Other simple activities to help older adults communicate with the young include
Hot – and Not, Grandchild Interview, and Did You Ever…? Children might want to do an interview with an older adult using pages from the Generations Scrapbook or the Life Interview Questions. Teenagers can take the lead in communicating with older adults using the Fill-in-the-Blanks Life Story. The Ages & Stages activities also have some ideas.

The above activities can form the basis for young people to enter the Legacy Project's annual Listen to a Life Essay Contest. Feeling like their life story is important – important enough to enter into a contest! – can mean the world to an older adult.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org

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