When your parent is in a nursing home

Our culture is simply not prepared for our aging population. But not for a lack of trying. We are woefully unprepared for the realities of advanced age.

This article originally appeared on grandparents.com. To learn more click here.

The Gloaming. It’s that twilight time of day. Baby Boomers enter a sort of gloaming time of life when professional responsibilities have lessened, our own children are raised (and hopefully gainfully employed), and we can focus on the wonder of grandchildren. We might even be planning to downsize and simply enjoy friends, family, and hobbies.

But the gloaming can also include the increasing needs of an elderly parent.

Our culture is simply not prepared for our aging population. It isn’t that adult children are not willing to help elderly parents. It’s that we are woefully unprepared for the realities of advanced age – the loss of independence and the concerns over finances, housing, and medical care. There are many options for senior housing today, but if your elderly parent is not able to live independently, you may be considering assisted living, a nursing home, or an adult family home. No matter what arrangement you are considering, marshal the forces of your Village to help. Your Village includes your siblings, your spouse, your grown children, your grandchildren, and medical personnel and caregivers. Learn as much as you can about your parent’s situation, develop relationships with doctors and nurses wherever possible, and always thank caregivers.

How grandchildren help

Your grandchildren are a very important part of your Village. The love of a grandchild for a grandparent tends to be pure and blessedly void of baggage. Grandchildren tend to be more accepting and less aware of social conventions,  so they bring a breath of fresh innocence to their encounters with those in the final stages of life.

Never underestimate the value of taking grandchildren to see ailing grandparents. Children gain compassion, patience, and wisdom from these relationships. Grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ memories, innocence, and acceptance are rekindled when grandchildren appear. Older children, who knew their grandparents when they were independent, will need some explanation before visiting them in a new facility, and some suggestions. Children of all ages respond best to simple facts and answers. Remember that even young children are adept at reading your emotional state, so be honest about the situation, and your feelings. Here are a few tips for helping an older child connect:

  • Family photo albums are a great way to begin discussions and stories.
  • Any activity the child and adult once enjoyed together should be called upon, whether it’s card or board games, art projects, magazines, books, or videos.
  • If a grandparent suffers from dementia, make sure the child is aware of this in advance. The past can be more accessible than the present for those with dementia. Old family pictures and books are perfect conversation starters.
  • Music offers unlimited opportunities for young and old to connect and is showing great promise in research on connecting with dementia patients.

My mother spent the last five years of her life wheelchair-bound, and my grandsons, ages 6 and 4, were used to chairs, walkers, and other apparatus they couldn’t touch. My father, their GreatGran, continued living in the assisted-living facility for more than a year after my mother died, enjoying friends and even traveling. Then a stroke left him in a wheelchair and suffering from dementia, and he spent two months in a skilled nursing facility.

Here is what I did: I quit feeling sorry for myself and for my parent, and I accepted the situation. Mercifully, the smells of the facility eventually abated – or I just got over them. Instead of walking past residents, I stopped, bent down to their wheelchair level, and listened. If you listen past the dementia, past the weakened bodies, and into the heart, you’ll hear their stories.

Innocence embraced

On one occasion, the boys were excited to visit my dad because I had hinted that he had a present for them. In my wisdom, I had planned ahead and purchased Nerf blasters for both of them. I even got extra Nerf bullets. Don’t ever do this. The word blaster should have been a clue. Both boys were so excited when they found the toys in GreatGran’s room that they immediately shrieked in glee and pointed them right at my bed-ridden father. I rushed them outside to shoot at the plants instead, as GreatGran watched through the window. His tears may have been a byproduct of the stroke. Or maybe he was seeing himself as an innocent little boy again.

When I took my precious granddaughter, Anna, to the home, I planned extra time. I let her control the conversation and, at 16 months, she knew just how to communicate. Her vocabulary consisted of “Hi!” And “Uh Oh,” with creative vocalizations in between. She had entire conversations with residents. The sparkle in their eyes spoke back to her, and her laughter rang through the halls, winning over every lonely heart.

My Village included other family members, even our pets. Whenever I took Ernie Jr., our neurotic little dog, the residents looked at him, smiled, and remembered their very first puppy.

Finding harmony

Attending a Sunday morning worship service there brought a new meaning to “when two or more are gathered in my name.” It was the hymns. Some of the hands could not turn the pages, some of the eyes could not read, some of the minds seemed far away. But I could see the memories and belief in their eyes as they quietly followed the tunes and words that still sang to their hearts. Tears rolled down the cheeks of my stoic dad.

My husband is never in the pictures. He was always taking the picture, moving the furniture, or buying the milkshake, which was one of the few treats my father could enjoy. I remember the night my father had one of the caregivers help him dial our number and, as he said hello, my husband began putting on his coat, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless we went to check on my dad.

A valid email is required

The Village of love, professional support, and tireless caretakers took care of my dad. My dear sons-in-law watched endless football games in my dad’s assisted-living apartment, nearly suffocating from the stifling heat. There were the visits from my brother when he “took over the worry” so that I could…just live. My cousin once rode his motorcycle from San Francisco and stayed 10 days, having lunch with his uncle every day, listening to endless stories about flying in the Korean War. His own father had been a pilot in World War II, but never returned home.

Find your village

If I had known what it would take to care for my parents, I would have said I couldn’t do it. But looking back now, I appreciate what I learned, and the value of my own inner strength. And I treasure my Village. In the end, it’s not the smells of nursing homes, or the profound sadness of leaving a lonely parent in one, knowing they’ll never go home again. It’s that when you really look at a wrinkled hand next to a tiny new one, you feel the continuity of life. And then you understand: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven.

Watch this

The Japanese "1975" diet could hold the key to longevity