I am no expert on nursing homes. But after much trial and error over the last year and a half, I have discovered that, as with many parts of parenting, the key to a successful visit is often based in the preparation. Here are some things that I have found helpful when bringing small children to a nursing home.
Talk it up.
I talk about my mother in our ordinarily life. My children particularly enjoy hearing stories about Nana and me from when I was a strong willed kid. In fact, during our last visit, my daughter told Nana her favorite story about my childhood.
Sometimes we read books that help us talk about my mother and keep her part of our daily life. I love The Grandma Book by the amazing Todd Parr, which colorfully describes all different types of grandmas who love their grandchildren, to include the ones that live with their friends. Recently, I borrowed Really and Truly by Émilie Rivard from our library, a charming book about a boy visiting his grandfather, who no longer recognizes him. Books encourage discussion, which is always a good thing.
My kids are young and do not have a lot of stamina or ability to keep it together for a long period of time in a small, sterile environment. A good visit with small children will generally be a short visit. Be okay with that, even when the time in the car may equal or even exceed the amount of time spent visiting.
Food, food, food.
I make a point of bringing food with us on every visit. My kids know that I ignore our normal rules for healthy eating when we see Nana. Cookies in the morning? Why not! I do, however, always bring fruit as well and our routine is to eat the fruit first, before sharing the treat.
When you take out food, it is best to be apart from the other residents. You have no idea of other people’s health concerns so you should not be sharing food with anyone other than your family member. It is okay, however, to leave excess Munchkins or other goodies with the staff.
Note that, if you are dealing with someone with memory issues, you may need to remind her to eat. My mother’s face lit up when she saw the watermelon and the cupcake, but within moments, she forgot they were for her. This was a problem the visit when we brought a small container of mini oreos, where Nana got distracted and had 5 small cookies and my children shared the other 30.
Things to do.
Sadly, at this point, our visits do not involve a lot of interaction between my mother and my children. It helps to bring toys for them to play with. Sometimes, I pick up those little Grab N Go packs with 4 crayons or some other small activity that only gets used at Nana’s. Other times, the kids will bring a small art project or activity, like sticker mosaics.
My children love window stickers, and Nana’s bed is next to large windows. We bring seasonal stickers and my kids love to decorate for Nana. (Learning point: two packs of the same design staves off any fighting over who gets the snowman!)
I always have a bag of tricks with me when we go visit. This past visit, it was beads and the plan for my daughter to make Nana a necklace:
Take advantage of the facility.
On nice days, we can take my mother outside in a pretty, enclosed courtyard. We bring balls, bubbles and even sidewalk chalk. This is great for the kids to be able to run around and nice for my mother, whose time outside is extremely limited.
Several months ago, we made an amazing discovery. Small children + scheduled recreation activities = happy children and happy residents. The residents love cooing over how cute and sweet the children are, which my daughter eats up, as she pretends to be shy.
My daughter also loves it when we can catch part of a musical performance. Several months ago, it was a performer with a guitar, and when she started singing “You Are My Sunshine,” my 4 year old was singing along and dancing, to the great delight of the residents.
My son loves to play the games. He jumps right in to play Bingo for Nana. But his favorite game is: Tableball. What is Tableball? We learned a few months ago. Residents sit around a long table and a soft, plastic ball is sent around the table, tapped by the residents across the table. When my children play, the residents are all smiles, repeatedly sending the ball towards the kids. And my son, always the competitor, takes the game very seriously:
Figure out how you want to incorporate the family member in your holiday plans in ways that work for your family, whether it involves a home visit or time at the nursing home. Make it clear to your children that Nana is part of the celebration, because she is part of the family.
For gift giving holidays, like birthdays and Christmas, we always exchange gifts. My children understand that I help Nana pick out things she thinks they would like and I include the children in coming up with ideas for gifts that Nana might enjoy.
Do not force it.
As much as I encourage my children to regularly see my mother, I do not make them come visit. There is usually choice involved. My son opted out of the last visit, so we made it a great Girls’ Visit instead.
As much as I wish the kids would want to hug my mother when the visit draws to a close, the reality is, that does not always happen. Which is okay. Sometimes we do a family hug. Other times, we just say goodbye. Just try to keep things are positive as possible and follow your instincts about what makes everyone most comfortable.
Be prepared to abandon ship/raise the white flag.
Things do not always go as planned. If the kids are whinier than usual or bickering nonstop, if Nana is particularly out of it, if the visit is just not working, recognize it, accept it, make a quick exit, and hope for better luck next time. They are just kids, after all, and they are doing the best they can in this strange, institutional world.