I ran into someone who has been promising to visit my father. When I saw her at the Post Office and she asked, “What can we do to help you and your father?” my answer was easy. Visit him.
I was telling Mary about it later. “Visiting is so easy to put off.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I don’t think I’d be very comfortable with it either.”
Visiting isn’t hard, though.
I wrote a list of ten things to do when visiting an elderly person — to make visits easier, if you don’t know how.
1. Listen — Listening is a slow-paced skill that has gotten lost in our rush-rush society. My father struggles to find words. Finding the patience to listen is so good for me.
2. Ask questions — I once heard someone suggest asking elderly people to talk about a time they got in trouble as a child. It brings out some funny stories. My father likes to talk about important days in history and the early days with my mother. Sometimes a question or two is all it takes to get a conversation rolling.
3. Look at photo albums — My mother always had a few small photo albums in her room at the nursing home. My father has some by his chair. She worked at identifying the people. He recalls past adventures.
4. Read — Sometimes I read to my mother. I discovered that picture books worked especially well. Reading to someone with dementia, though, is not unlike reading to a toddler. Her attention span was sometimes short and we would skip pages to reach the end.
5. Listen to him (or her) read — My father reads to me. When he chooses books to read, he often chooses thick books with small print. “Why don’t you choose an easier book?” I asked him once.
“I like to challenge myself ,” he replied.
So he ends up reading passages out loud. I think it helps him process. He is not unlike a 3rd or 4th grader, following the words with his finger, moving his lips all the while, often whispering aloud — and then going back and reading it to me.
Right now he’s reading The Bounty Trilogy — a fat book containing all three of the Bounty books by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.
“Captain Bligh was a bad guy,” he told me about six times yesterday.
“Yes, that’s why the crew mutinied,” I replied. “Spoiler alert.”
We would repeat the conversation about an hour later.
Someone visiting him could easily ask about what he’s reading, and I’m sure my father would be happy to tell him and read to him.
6. Write a letter — My father has wanted to write a few letters but, in addition to the struggle for words, the fine motor skills required for writing are lacking. Recently I’ve taken dictation from him to try to help.
7. Do puzzles or play games — My father still does the daily jumble and crossword, but more and more he needs a little help. He transposes letters or gets the down and across mixed up. I usually help him with a few answers and then let him keep working on it.
Helen used to play rummy with an elderly man. He cheated constantly and accused her of cheating — and they both laughed about it. It was a great way for them to visit.
8. Walk — One person that came to visit my father asked about the house. He gave her a walking tour, talking about the changes we had made to the house. It was a slow process because he stopped to talk about different pieces of artwork etc. He likes to walk outside, too, when the weather is nicer. But he needs someone with him.
9. Sit — For several years, I watched my father visit my mother every day twice a day. She couldn’t carry on a conversation toward the end so he just sat with her.
Now I sit with him most evenings while he watches television. Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, a baseball game, whatever.
10. Share a meal — My father could win prizes for being the world’s slowest eater, but we sit together every night to eat. I’m so thankful that my daughters patiently wait until he’s done. No devices. Just conversation. It is good.
The sad thing about a list like this is that the people involved in elder care will see it and nod in agreement, but most other people (myself included in years past) will just gloss over it.
But then, again, Karl applied for a job at a retirement home. Maybe this will be helpful…