5 tips for happy holiday visits

Long-term care (LTC) providers all know that the ideal is to have earnest, ongoing family engagement throughout the year with residents. But more often than we’d like to admit, that isn’t always the way it works out. Sometimes families visit less regularly, and when they do visit (especially at the holidays) they often tend to bring many misinterpretations of a resident's condition with them—um, along with all the tiny grandchildren!

Because of this, the holidays are among the most trying times for nursing homes and assisted living organizations that are just trying to ensure a "good family visit" for residents and their loved ones. It can be especially challenging for families of residents who are living with dementia.

Obviously, we all know it’s probably a bad idea to bring screaming infants and pet puppies into LTC facilities during family visits. But alas, it still happens—a lot.

But all LTC communities can be proactive in smoothing out the impending holiday family visits, by understanding both the challenges the individual residents have and the emotional challenges felt by their own families. And, sometimes organizations need to let families know that there may be certain "dos and don'ts" about holiday visits.

Regardless, putting a few important actions in place before and during the holiday family visits can have a major impact on the residents and their families, said Kelly Sheets, who has worked with the subtle interaction between seniors and their families for more than 15 years. Sheets has a particular interest in bringing education to caregivers who are helping people who live with dementia, and she also works with FIT Kits, an organization that uses research to engage people living with dementia and their families.

I asked her about what LTC communities can do to make things easier for residents, especially when families choose to make those "rare" or "holiday-only" visits. "The holidays can be a really fun time of the year, but when someone is living with dementia, it can be a challenge for families to know how to interact," she told me. "Helping families have successful visits can make your team stand out and connect more deeply with families."

Sheets suggested five things all LTC communities can do to ease the strain on both residents and visiting families:

1. The professional caregivers know the residents best, so ask the caregivers to identify what times work best for interaction for each resident. This will help set the stage for successful family visits, especially for residents who have dementia.

2. Communicate with families ahead of time, without assuming that they know how their loved one responds to communication: "Send a note to the family well before the holiday rush," Sheets said. "Include ideas on how to interact with that loved one during the holidays."

3. Ask caregivers to identify two or three activities or subjects that the resident enjoys, and to set up a few activities that families can join when they arrive. "This is an opportunity to showcase the expertise of the caregivers and creates a specific connection to the families," Sheets said. Offer a quiet area for these family interactions, and be sure to ask families for other activity suggestions, she advised.

4. If possible, make sure the resident’s regular caregivers are on hand to greet the families and to answer questions. Train caregivers to recognize and understand the special interaction needed during this holiday time, when many visitors may be from out of town or are new to visitations, Sheets said.

5. Prepare the caregiver teams thoroughly. "It’s easy for everyone to get so involved in the day-to-day work that they forget how important a family visit is," Sheets said. "For some out-of-town visitors, it may be their only visit all year. This is an opportunity for the staff to show what they know and how in-tune they are with each resident living there."

So, decide to change your own paradigm. Choose to tap into your most valuable information resources (your own caregivers) and gather their input, well in advance. Then, bring your residents’ families into the message-mix. And we’ll all have a much happier holiday season.

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia , Executive Leadership