DIMENSIONS Summer 2007

For the Family Caregiver
When Words Fail . . . Visiting a Loved One in the Nursing Home

by Mary Guerriero Austrom, Ph.D.

One of the most difficult things for family caregivers of Alzheimer disease (AD) patients to do is place their loved one in a nursing home. This event is often described by family members as the single most difficult decision they have to make. Family members often feel that they have let the patient down by breaking a promise not to institutionalize them; are concerned that the nursing home will not provide quality care; or will not be able to meet their loved oneís emotional needs. However, AD can be such a long disease that nursing home placement cannot be avoided in most cases. At some point, the patientís needs are greater than most family members are able to provide without professional help, therefore nursing home placement is necessary for the family caregiverís own physical and emotional health. Remember that you are the most important person in your loved oneís life. By staying involved in his or her care even in the nursing home, you can help the staff provide the best care possible.

As the disease progresses, visits to the nursing home can become particularly difficult for some family members. This tends to happen when the patientís verbal skills have diminished to the point where communication is extremely limited or nonexistent. Caregivers experience many emotions as they watch their loved one fade before their eyes. It is therefore understandable how painful nursing home visits can be.

However, we cannot be sure just how much the patient understands or feels at an emotional level once words fail. We have seen patients become visibly calmer and less agitated when the staff tell them that a loved one is coming to visit. While the patient cannot tell you their loved oneís name and will probably not recognize them when they get there, there is still something soothing, calming and familiar about that name, which makes them feel better.

We believe that the patient is still able to connect to some of their past at an emotional level. Therefore, we always recommend that family members continue their visits to the nursing home even though visiting is emotionally draining. Following are some suggestions which may help to make your visits more meaningful:

Reprinted with permission from the Indiana University Alzheimerís Disease Center; Spring 2006 Newsletter.

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