Staying Connected with Family in Residential Care

How can you stay close to loved ones who need residential or long-term care? Here are ideas from Lorraine Pollock, who manages Bupa’s Winara facility in Waikanae.

After years of living independently at home or with family, a shift to residential care can be traumatic for the person who needs support, and for their loved ones. Often spouses and families have provided various kinds of support to keep the person at home for as long as possible. They may feel guilty when it’s time for formal care, and worry about how to stay connected to a loved one after their shift to a care facility.

I had this experience in my own family when my mother-in-law needed hospital care. We worried that she would feel lonely and isolated, so agreed on a ‘visiting roster’ so she could always count on seeing one of us at the weekends. We all had to travel long distances to see Mum, but the roster approach was fair, and it worked well for all of us. On their weekends ‘off’, alternate family members sent Mum flowers and cards. We told Mum’s friends that she was ill, and they created their own visiting roster, helping out in other ways such as doing Mum’s washing.

Reassuring each other

When someone is seriously ill in hospital or needs rest home care, it’s common to feel you aren’t doing enough. After Mum died, although we knew we had done all that we could, there were the usual feelings of guilt: that we hadn’t visited often enough, or done enough, or set aside other responsibilities to care for Mum at home. It’s good to keep talking to one another about these very common feelings, and to give and receive reassurance that everyone is doing their best

Shifting to formal care

Most people do not like coming into a care home and can take a few weeks to settle. Staff are aware of the problem and constantly reassure residents during this period of adjustment. It can help to talk to other residents who have been through this big change themselves. One of our residents makes it her job to welcome newcomers and show them around for this reason! New residents may dislike the food, make disparaging comments about the other residents, and say they want to go home. We have training sessions for our staff about this subject and we are all mindful that residents have given up precious possessions, big houses, cherished gardens and, sometimes, have also recently lost their spouse of many years. They may have lost their good health and independence, can no longer drive a car, and need the support of others throughout the day. These changes are huge for anyone; many of us will face this difficult transition ourselves one day. Having the support of loved ones means a great deal.

Spouse support groups

  • Like many Bupa homes, we have established a support group for the spouses and families of our residents. They face a big adjustment, too, when their loved one moves to a care facility. Sometimes the support group meets for an evening meal (usually a roast and pavlova, and a glass or two of wine). Often we invite a speaker. These regular sessions have become very popular. Members of the group have become friends, and some go out for lunch or coffee together between meetings. It can be helpful for them to talk to another person who is also struggling with feelings of grief and loss about putting their loved one into care.
  • If a resident has dementia, is no longer able to speak, or is not mobile, spouses and family members may have to find new ways to connect with the person.  This has been a discussion topic at one of our dinners. Suggestions included: a walk around the garden, buying an ice cream and sitting outside, bringing in a pet (mainly dogs, though we have had a budgie), looking through family photo albums, playing pool, a drive to the beach, going out for a beer together and remembering good times. Sometimes staff set up a dining table in the resident’s room or our ‘quiet room’ so spouses can share a meal on their own.
  • Sending a lovely handwritten card or letter, perhaps enclosing a photo or two, can mean a lot to rest home residents. If necessary, staff will read these to the person, and it’s always pleasurable to look at photos

Keeping the balance

  • These days it’s common for residents to have smaller families than in the past. Visits and emotional support often fall to a spouse, or maybe only one child lives in the area. If you are in this situation, being the sole supporter can be quite stressful. The person may depend on you a lot, or you may be helping with medical and other decision-making. Watching someone’s health deteriorate can also be depressing if you’re dealing with this on your own. It’s important for you to look after your own mental health by taking time out, having massages, discussing problems with others, and having regular medical checks to ensure you stay well yourself.
  • We find that one strong family member (often a daughter) may have the role of Enduring Power of Attorney, so is the visitor we see most often, especially if they are helping to organise care and make decisions. We try to support these family carers and treat them as partners, offering emotional support, and meeting regularly to talk about concerns.
  • If you’re busy, rest home staff may purchase toiletries, treats and clothes on behalf of your resident; some care homes have these things in their ‘shop’. It’s just a matter of asking!
  • How often to visit depends on your other commitments and whether your loved one’s health is stable. At times of ill health, more visits and phone calls will be comforting. It’s a big help if friends can visit regularly too. Phoning can be almost as good as a visit (our residents have phones in their rooms) and in the future ‘face to face’ Skype chats would be fabulous.

Question: My Mum lives at a residential care facility and will soon celebrate her 90th birthday. She’s pretty fragile… should we bring her home for her birthday, or organise something at the rest home?

Answer: Winara celebrates everyone’s birthday with a birthday cake and gift. For the ‘big birthdays’ (85, 90, 95, 100) we often have a family party at Winara. These are enjoyed by everyone. Families usually bring in a few wines, and we supply the afternoon tea. All residents participate and celebrate together. Talk to the rest home manager… is your Mum up to a birthday outing? Or would the facility host something special with your help?

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