The holiday season is, by nature, a time when many go back to wherever "home" is, to visit aging parents. In Home for the Holidays: Be Prepared, I wrote about some issues that can accompany these visits, such as the shock of seeing a parent in worse shape than expected, and the flip side of that, problems for the hands-on caregiver to handle in the aftermath of the visit.
If a parent is in a care center, some people run into yet another problem - that of family and friends who simply cannot make themselves go into a nursing home or hospital setting to visit a friend or loved one.
In my book, Minding Our Elders, I wrote the story of one daughter, from a family of five, who couldn't go see her mother in "the home." Another daughter from the same family, the daughter I interviewed, visited nearly every day - doing her mother's hair, taking her for rides and having meals with her.
Both loved their mother, but they had distinctly different personalities. The daughter who went to the nursing home daily was trying to give her mother the same attention that she'd given her mother when she was living in her own home. The other daughter had a big problem accepting her mother's failing condition. What the daughter needed to learn is that the issue of to visit or not visit isn't about her. The issue is that her mother needed her adult daughter to act like an adult and visit her.
When I'm asked about this issue, it's generally a reference to adult siblings, and there is often resentment toward the sibling that won't visit. I try to help the person who is a hands-on caregiver to understand the sibling who doesn't visit. People like this are not necessarily bad people.
I suggest that they gently but firmly let their sibling know that the mother loves her and needs her support. Most of us would rather not see a loved one in any kind of facility. That's a given. But, when there is no other choice, and health or safety concerns place an elder in a home, the family needs to get over any discomfort they harbor about institutional care so they can visit the elder in the elder's new home. How is an elder supposed to adjust when an adult child is not willing to go to "that place?"
If the person who balks at visiting is very resistant, the hands-on caregiver can start by asking him or her to go along to the care center to pick up the elder and go for a ride. If necessary, they can even wait in the car while you do get the elder and bring her to the car. Eventually, you may be able to coax the resistant sibling into the living room area of the facility, while you go to the room and bring the elder down for a visit. Hopefully, once the resistant adult finds out that they can tolerate that much, they will learn that they can go to the elder's room, as well, without too much discomfort. The idea is rather like a therapist helping someone who is phobic by exposing a patient gradually to what they are phobic about.
I believe a lot of reluctance to visit facilities comes from fear. People see a loved one in a facility setting, and subconsciously feel their own mortality. They may even consciously think, "This could be me, someday."
They don't want to deal with those thoughts, so avoidance seems to be the only answer. Thus, the cop-out, "I can't stand seeing them like that." Growing up means overcoming our fears, and the best way to overcome fear is knowledge.
Once an adult child manages one visit, all visits will become easier. Some people will always have a harder time than others, when it comes to viewing and coping with the frailty of a loved one. And some will always have a harder time wrestling with their own fears and their own mortality, which keeps them from confronting the issue by seeing a loved one in a nursing home or hospital. However, even adult children can grow in spirit, and when they are expected by their peers to suit up and show up at the care center, they just may pull it off.
Published On: December 01, 2008