Okay, let's all just admit it, nursing homes can be rather depressing. The visitors notice it, the staff notice it, & the clients do not mince words about it. Long hallways with group dining rooms at each end make one think of hospitals. Even if there are colorful decorations on the walls, the comparison is impossible not to make. It is, of course, a nursing care facility. The clients wouldn't be there unless they had need of that nursing care. And so, with the holidays in full swing, I want to address the inevitable topic of loneliness in nursing homes. It is there, if you're brave enough to face it. But does it have to be? I don't think so. I'd like to address the staff, families with loved ones who live in a facility like this, and finally the clients who live there because it takes all three of these to make care homes less lonely and more like an actual home.
First: staff. Your shoulders already carry a great burden. You walk each day into your workplace knowing that someone you've grown to love may have passed on in the night. It can be easy to begin to distance yourself emotionally from the patients in order to protect yourself from further hurt, but please don't. You are often the only smiling face that they see in a day & maybe the only face. If the faces you see are so limited in number, it means a great deal whether they are wearing a smile, a grimace or a stern frown. Greeting them and asking about their family is very important. Remembering the names of some of their grandchildren can mean the world. Taking five extra minutes to hear a story you've already heard can brighten their day. Sometimes they know they've already told you the story...they just want someone to be near and they haven't been anywhere in a long time so they don't have any new stories. Keep encouraging them to write to loved ones, to reach out, to visit with their neighbor lady down the hall, to join in the activities. We all need connection, and with it, the loneliness ebbs away.
Second: family. You're exhausted from having to deal with all of the medical emergencies and financial difficulties of your loved one who has gone into care. It requires almost a full time job just to sort all of the paperwork involved. You probably haven't even started fully sifting the emotions of watching your loved one lose their independence. If you have, that can be even more painful than the paperwork involved in finding the help they need. You may be tempted to call them less frequently, or stop in less often because they might very well be angry with the world (and you) for the situation they find themselves in. Don't. If anything, call more often and visit more often. Especially during the holidays. The feelings they are having are acute indicators that they still have fight left in them. Let them know that they're not forgotten because they moved addresses. Also, help them to re-discover some of what made them who they were before they went into nursing care. If they were always caring for others, it can make it very difficult for them to sit back with nothing to do. Find outlets for their creativity, their talents and their love of others so that they don't lose heart and so that they don't lose purpose. It's important for all of us, but especially for them as they struggle with feelings of uselessness. Keep brainstorming until you come up with something they'll really enjoy.
Third: clients. Despite everyone else's best efforts, no one else can make you feel better if you are determined to close off your heart. It hurts to care. It hurts not be able to do what we once did or see who used to see regularly, but if you open your heart to the new people around you, you might find a great deal of purpose in your life. Some of the nurses caring for you might be going through a painful divorce. Some might have severely handicapped children at home. Some of the other residents might have extreme and chronic pain. There may be people in your new circle of acquaintances that would really benefit from a shoulder to cry on or at least a listening ear or a smiling face. Those who are younger might very well be willing to listen to some sage advice from someone who has trodden the path of life for many years and has far more experience.
This life is tough. It's tough for you and it's tough for them. If we all allow our hearts to open to one another, however, we might find the loneliness begins to subside and a real family atmosphere begin to develop, even in nursing homes.