We often talk about the need to reach out to sick or elderly persons to offer comfort at the end of life, but what does that look like in practice? Not every family has grandparents who live nearby, so the opportunity to share joy with the elderly comes only occasionally. Visiting the elderly in a nursing home is a great way to teach children about the respect due to the older generation.
Visiting a nursing home can be a beautiful experience for your family. It will help your children learn how to relate to their elders as well as learn patience, empathy, and how to respect others. No matter how long or short your visit, your children will learn a powerful lesson about the kinship we have with all members of our human family, old and young.
If you have never visited a nursing home before, you may have many questions. Once you arrive there, what do you do? How should you prepare your children ahead of time so that they can learn from their experience? What do you talk about with the residents? These practical tips will help you plan your family’s next visit to a nursing home.
Research the nursing homes in your area and pick one that best suits the needs of your children. For example, young children might not feel comfortable visiting patients in an advanced Alzheimer’s unit. Contact the administrator or activities manager at the nursing home to arrange your visit. Find a time to visit the nursing home and ask if there are any special rules for visitors. If possible, plan your visit during an ordinary time of year, not near a holiday when the residents are more likely to receive visits from their friends or family. Be sure to ask the nursing home staff if there are any residents who don’t get many visitors so that you can visit with them first.
If visiting the nursing home with just your family seems daunting, organize a group of friends to go along with you. Although you don’t have to plan a special activity for your visit, you may wish to contact the nursing home to arrange a short activity such as playing board games, playing a musical instrument, organizing a craft project, or conducting a sing-along with the residents.
Visiting strangers can be intimidating and might make your children feel awkward. To make sure your children have a positive experience, formulate a plan. Before you go, talk to them about why you’re visiting the people in the nursing home. Explain the importance of treating others with dignity and respect, especially those who may be forgotten.
Hold frequent conversations with your children about the challenges of growing old and help them find strategies for looking past any illness to see the beauty of each person. Read stories with younger children to spark discussion. Use Lesson 4 of our unit study entitled All Shapes and Sizes to help your children understand some of the challenges—such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and mobility or sensory issues—that the elderly face. Tell your children that some of the people they will meet might not be able to express their gratitude for the visit or that the residents might seem disconnected or uninterested in seeing visitors. Your children should still smile and try to talk to those people, even when they don’t receive a response. You are making a difference in the lives of the residents just by visiting.
When you visit the nursing home, have your children take inexpensive flowers, homemade cards, or hand-drawn pictures for the residents. Pass these items out when you visit each of the rooms. Senior citizens often have a hard time hearing or seeing, so remind your children to speak loudly and clearly. If you give the residents cards or pictures, gently describe the item to them, talk about how it was made, and highlight any special features. Read any text aloud to them.
If it is their first time visiting the residents, your children may not know what to say. Before you arrive, tell your children to introduce themselves to each resident as you visit them. If the resident is able to answer, have your children ask questions or simply comment about things they notice around the room. These could be simple things, such as:
Asking about hobbies or personal information can be difficult for some children, but asking about things and items in the room can help spark a conversation. Senior citizens sometimes suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, which makes it harder for them to remember current events or even basic information, so tell your children not to ask too many questions if the conversation isn’t going well. Sometimes just a smile and a friendly handshake are all it takes to instill a little joy into a person’s life.
Stay with each resident for only a few minutes so that they do not get too tired from the visit. If someone does not want any visitors, don’t be discouraged. You can simply leave a brightly colored card or picture to make the person smile later on. Remember that a lonely person greatly appreciates the time you took to say hello and treat him with respect.
After the visit, talk about your experience. Ask each of your children to remember one moment that made an impact. This could be a quick story from one of the residents or a happy expression on someone’s face when he received a card. Pray for the people whom you visited, mentioning them by name in your prayer intentions. Remember to continue praying for them after your visit since it is possible that many of them don’t have friends or family who pray for them.
Visiting a nursing home doesn’t have to be intimidating or complicated. Remind your children that the more times that you visit nursing home residents, the easier it will become. The small gift of your time is worth an incredible amount to people who live in a care facility.
Laura Kizior is the Digital Media and Communciations Manager for the Culture of Life Studies Program. Her work has appeared on Verily.com, CatholicMom.com, LifeSiteNews.com, Celebrate Life Magazine, TeachersSavingChildren.org, and in the Pro-Life Healthcare Alliance newsletter.