Last Updated: April 4, 2013
By Jeannette Franks, PhD
Whether you are crossing the country or crossing the street to
visit your loved one in her new home, it can be difficult to adjust
your familiar relationship with someone who has moved to a new
environment. Nursing homes can
be especially challenging, but even independent or assisted living
communities can alter family dynamics.
Where your parents might once have been completely in charge of
the kitchen, the garden, and everything from the plumbing to the
gutters, they may now feel like guests in their own home. Some retirement
communities offer a "hospitality" lifestyle, where amenities
and senior living activities are provided just like room service in
a fine hotel. In the past you and your parents may have shared
everyday tasks together like mowing the lawn or car maintenance.
Things like meal preparation and cleanup were done as a family-now
most of those jobs are done by staff in the community. In this new
environment, you will have to find new activities to share and ways
to make a visit mutually rewarding and meaningful.
Reinventing treasured activities
Every family is different, but what did yours enjoy together
before the big move? Cards? Movies? Family meals? Creative
To start with, a shared meal in the facility is one of the
easiest of senior living activities to do together. My dad, John,
and his table mates in assisted living were glad to have me there
at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and the staff was always gracious,
whether I was expected or just popped in when I had an extra hour.
If a place is particularly rigid about dropping in, talk to the
administrator. It is, after all, your loved one's home. Perhaps
your family was different, but in my childhood home my mother was
delighted to have unexpected visitors, and it was always acceptable
to squeeze in another plate at the table.
Even though my Uncle Mac had been in his Life Care Community for
several years, it wasn't until an East Coast trip that I was able
to visit him there. Several cousins joined us and we played the
card game "up and down the river" (I think some call this game "oh,
hell") as we had at many Thanksgivings and other gatherings in the
past. Everyone had a delightful time. He said with some sadness and
nostalgia, "This is the first time I've played that game here."
Well, he waited too long! But sometimes it takes an outsider to get
things going (and to bring the cards).
Most families enjoy going over photo albums. With dementia,
especially Alzheimer's, the long-term memory remains intact well
after someone is no longer able to tell you what they had for
breakfast. Seeing familiar faces from long ago sparks happy
memories. Photos of weddings, babies, pets, and children are
usually enjoyed, even if the person doesn't remember who the people
in the pictures are. My neighbor, Joan, whose mom is in a dementia
care unit, discovered that not only did her mother take great
pleasure in paging through the family albums, but the aides also
took the time to leaf through them with her and noted in the daily
log that it was a mutually enjoyable activity.
Ask your family member to describe his or her wedding, or how
they met their spouse or got engaged. These stories are usually a
joy to recall, regardless of how many times they may have been told
Encouraging a family member to recount his or her memories is
important on several levels. Creating an oral history, a tape
recording, a video, or a written memoir can help the elderly put
life's joys and traumas in order. Remembering global as well as
personal events such as World War II, the Depression, family
history both pleasant and difficult, and births and deaths, are
therapeutic activities that can bring comfort. This can also be
useful for an adult child striving to comprehend family dynamics,
and is a great gift to the grandchildren.
When my dad's Alzheimer's started to make it more challenging to
find activities that were mutually enjoyable, I began to bring
little gifts when I visited. Opening a gift-wrapped package is a
joy for most people of all ages, and even if it was just socks or
chocolate, the activity was pleasurable for my dad and got visits
off to a good start. Fresh flowers also brighten a room and are a
gift you can give every week.
Most residents of retirement and long-term care communities like
to get outside their neighborhood. Even if lunch in the facility
has already been paid for, a restaurant outing is usually fun. How
would you like to eat in the same dining room everyday, three times
a day? Shopping, movies, car trips, or the library are also often
Even the frailest person can benefit from this type of activity,
although the difficulty of transfers, wheelchairs, and walkers can
be daunting. A quick trip to an outside deck to sit in the sun for
fifteen minutes can be beneficial in a number of ways. Don't
discount the power of the sun to lift spirits-and to help prevent
osteoporosis with natural vitamin D!
Participate in activities
Was your mom ever into bingo? If not in the past, then probably
not now. Is your parent an introvert or extravert? Not much about
that is likely to change. While it is not impossible, someone who
did not routinely exercise probably is not going to start going to
chair aerobics in late life.
In other words, it's fine for people to continue to be who they
If you really think participation in new senior living
activities might improve your mom's quality of life and she
resists, you could plan to do it together for a while. For example,
if you think an art class is just the ticket-take it together. If
you are convinced that exercise will make her feel better (and it
will!), you might schedule yourself to take some classes with her.
Usually the staff will be pleased to see you too.
Sometimes the same activity becomes even more appealing because
of a change of venue. For example, Lynn, a social worker, invited
her mom to join in her own book group. Regardless of the fact that
there was a book group in the retirement community, the chance to
read and discuss the same books as her daughter, in the company of
people of a different age and from outside the retirement
community, became a cherished experience for Lynn's mother.
Most of us are guilt infused and never feel we do enough for a
loved person. Many of us tend to do too much. Remember that your
own well-being and the happiness of the other significant people in
your life are important too. Here's a tongue-in-cheek guideline:
Every day is too much and twice a year is not enough. Anything in
between that works for your situation is fine.
For long-distance family members, a phone call can be more
rewarding than a letter or card. Mom wants to hear your voice.
Again, no rules as to how often is often enough.
Nor are there rules about what will create a successful visit.
It's hard to predict what your loved one now finds enjoyable. For
example, for some families reading aloud was a typical activity
that everyone enjoyed and they continue to do so. Some families
would think you were out of your mind if you started reciting
poetry aloud. Some seniors who never heard a poem aloud suddenly
find it a delightful activity; some old people who adored poetry
early in life now find it ridiculous. In other words, it's not
helpful to generalize. Every family is as individual as a
But you're not without resources. Ask your family member what he
or she wants to do. Ask staff for suggestions on available senior
living activities in the area. Check with friends and other family
members. These years are challengingandimportant-what you can do to
improve the quality of time spent is well worth the investment of
thought and effort.
Jeannette Franks, PhD, is a passionate
gerontologist who teaches at University of Washington and Bastyr
University; she is the author of a book on assisted living and