Reaching Out to the Shut-in
A friend has just moved into a nursing home. Your friend's world has become very small?the call bell, the bedside table, the curtain around the bed, the nursing station down the hall.
After making decisions for a lifetime, your friend is left with a day that proceeds on schedule?waking up, bathing, meals, enjoying activities, going to bed.
Worse, your friend is separated from the people he or she loves, and death has taken many friends. Perhaps your friend sees little to look forward to.
Can visits to those in nursing homes make a difference? Medical personnel, caregivers, and the patients themselves say yes. Here are some suggestions for making your visits effective.
Entering the room. Should you say a warm "How are you?" Not always. Your friend may be depressed or in discomfort, yet trying not to give in to negative thinking.
Instead, try: "I came to be with you for a while." Place your chair fairly close, where your friend can see you without straining. If you remain standing, you give the impression you will leave at any moment.
What is there to talk about or to do? Can you draw out memories of his or her life and the people in it? His or her work? Hobbies? Travels?
Take along something to do together if silence becomes uncomfortable. You could ask: "Would you like me to write some notes for you? Tell me what to say."
Or bring a book, a game, a radio, or a cassette player. You can either play favorite tapes or do what a friend of mine did. She ran the tape recorder while a 90-year-old recalled cherished moments for her family.
"Your eyes say so much!" The old and ill may fear their appearance has become so shocking that friends will no longer care to visit. "I hate my mirror!" one aging patient exclaimed.
"Your eyes speak for you, Jeannie," her friend answered. "They express your warmth and love. Your smile gave me a lift when I walked in."
Would your friend like a manicure or makeover? You may even find occasion to say, "What a becoming color!" "What expressive hands!"
Listen! Researchers asked people over 65: "Do you have someone in whom you can confide?" Those who said yes had better health, both mental and physical, than those who said no.
But what if you are hearing from your friend an outpouring of negative feelings?boredom, fear, loneliness, despair? Simply saying, "Cheer up, don't feel sorry for yourself," is not appropriate.
"I know it isn't easy to live this way," one good listener responded. "Thank you for telling me your real feelings?it's a privilege to feel so close to you."
If your friend should suddenly become silent or change the subject, avoid pressuring. Some people are reserved by temperament. Others hold their negative thoughts inside, sparing those they care about.
Your friend longs to hear "Well done!" What important contributions to friends, family, community, and church those now confined to nursing homes have made! But once there, such individuals may lose their sense of self-worth. To counter this, seize every opportunity to refer to your friend's past contribution.
Many older people mentally compile a "failure list" and, during low moments, mull over this list. Turn these thoughts into more positive channels by recalling past successes: "You must be proud of those sons of yours, Dan. You've shaped them with your own strong values."
Give your friend control. Be alert for every possible opportunity to leave him or her in control.
Phone and ask before visiting: "Are you feeling like a visit?" "When should I come?" "Would you like me to bring a book to read aloud?"
Consult him or her about where your chair should be placed, where a gift of flowers can best be enjoyed.
Let your friend do things for himself or herself if able. Jumping up to perform one service after another only confirms a nursing home resident's feeling of helplessness.
Inactivity is dangerous. Inactivity is a major hazard of the elderly, authorities on aging tell us, leading to physical decline or even total disability.
Can you bring something to stimulate activity after you've left? Craft shops carry a variety of projects that can be pursued on lapboards, such as crocheting, quilting, knitting, sewing, and Japanese paper folding.
"List the activities your friend used to enjoy most," one caregiver suggests, "then figure a way he or she can still pursue each interest." A baseball fan, for example, could be given a colorful baseball picture history. A gardening buff might welcome a windowsill mini-garden.
Could you arrange a change from those confining walls? Would a concert, play, movie, or dinner be possible? What about a picnic?
"I'm no longer needed." One visitor took a partially paralyzed friend materials for making lapel pins. When sold at the church bazaar, they brought in $70.
What about addressing envelopes and folding letters for community causes, dressing dolls for children who would be overlooked at Christmas, knitting mittens for them?
Put an extension on your visit. Leave something that will say "Hello" after you've gone. Mary Ann broke off a sprig of evergreen as she walked to the nursing home. After she left, her friend held it tenderly.
In another situation, two friends created a mobile with photos of the patient's friends, leaving it hanging within the patient's sight. Cassettes with greetings from that individual's club or church group would be another thoughtful gift.
Laughter, research tells us, is healing. Why not leave some chuckles for your friend?jokes and cartoons you have clipped, humorous essays and poems?
What if your friend hurts you? Your friend suddenly becomes distant, unreasonable, irritable, even lashes out in anger during your visit. How do you handle that?
"When others hurt us," a pastoral counselor advises, "it may be because they themselves are hurting. Then, the hurt really means: 'Help me!' Often we lash out at those we love most, those with whom we feel secure, knowing they will love us anyway.
"Those sudden personality changes," he goes on, "may be beyond your friend's control. Medication, depression, or physical changes may be responsible. Try not to feel angry at the person but at the cause of the behavior, and try not to take the hurt personally."
Prescription for the spirit. If you observe a longing for pastoral visits, notify your friend's church. Taped services can also be a comfort.
If possible, take your friend to church. Though the Sunday service in the nursing home is well intended, it may not feel like "real church." Your friend may be longing for his or her own church?the familiar setting, the familiar faces.
Saying goodbye. Watch for signs of weariness. Sometimes, a short visit is twice as helpful as a long one.
Leave your friend with hope of another visit: "Goodbye?but just for now. It's always good to see you."
And before you leave, say an encouraging word to the other patients. Half of those in nursing homes never have a visitor.
As you return home after your visit, thank God for your friend and the opportunity to show him or her how much you cherish them.
Condensed from Catholic Digest (February 1997), 1997 Ellen Lamar Thomas. Used by permission.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
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Reaching Out to the Shut-in
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