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Practical Insights for Busy Caregivers

Making the most out of visits with a parent in long-term care


August 13, 2018, by Paul Cavanagh,

At first, Ann Warner found visiting her mother at her long-term care home intimidating. Conversing with her wasn’t easy, but over time, Ann found ways to make her visits more enjoyable by engaging in activities that took into account her mom’s dementia.
Ann took advantage of some of the long-term care home’s recreation programs. For instance, she got access to materials the home used for its gardening program so that she could sit with her mom as she contentedly transplanted and deadheaded various plants. The home also had a cooking program. Although her mom had little interest in cooking, Ann found that they could enjoyably pass the time together making sandwiches.
Ann created a number of activity boxes as well. She got many of her activity ideas from the long-term care home’s recreation team. She just downsized them for her mom’s personal use. Here’s what the boxes contained:
  • Her mom’s personal activity box held items that were of interest to her (hair roller, wooden spoon, cookie cutter). Their purpose was to prompt conversations that would lead to the re-living of memories.  
  • Another activity box held fidget items: 
    • balls of yarn that Ann and her mom were forever winding or unwinding as they talked
    • plumbing “creations” made with interlocking plastic PVC pipes
    • stuffed animals with baby brushes for grooming
    • a stretchy tube that Ann’s mom was always trying to swat her with 
    • a homemade bling box that rattled and had drawstrings that pulled every which way
  • Other boxes contained hands-on activities that gave visitors and staff something to do with Ann’s mom: 
    • coupon clipping
    • artificial flower arranging
Ann also left index cards laying around that prompted visitors or staff members to ask her mom the question written on it. This would result in her mom recounting a story she enjoyed repeating such as Ask about the day a boy fell out of the bedroom window of one of her five daughters! 
In order to make sure that staff at the home knew as much as they could about her mom, Ann gave them an “All About Me” booklet. She downloaded a blank copy of the booklet from the Alzheimer Society of Canada and filled in all sorts of details about her mom, including things about her past, her likes and dislikes, and her normal routines.
In the end, her efforts didn’t just help her reconnect with her mom; they helped others relate to her as well.
Share your thoughts
Do you have ideas about how to use activities to connect with someone in a long-term care home? Share them on our Family Caregiving Forum.

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This is great but does anyone have suggestions for an older man?
This is a great post! I truly believe that we need to embrace the life stories and personal strengths of individuals as they age, and especially when there is a progressive cognitive decline. I can only imagine how challenging it must be at times, to think of ways to engage and interact during visits when there are more roles in life than just caregiving. I am a recreation therapist and am currently working on developing a package that would help family members, friends and volunteers enhance their visits with those they care for, and about. I hope to find people who are in a caregiving role to meet with so that I can ensure it meets the needs of as many people as possible. If anyone is interested in helping me, I will check back frequently for responses. In regards to suggestions for an older man, it depends on his past and present skills, strengths and abilities. If he enjoyed working with his hands, it might be helpful to encourage painting or sanding activities, or for him to "help" by giving advice about these subjects. If he was a business person, it may be more helpful to ask for help with sorting out receipts, organizing the bills, etc. These are just examples, but the take away message is, think of ways that he (or she) can feel helpful in some way. How can this person give back and feel like they have a purpose? After all, that's what we all want. Even if it's just through verbal instruction, stories or experience given to someone, that counts. If the person is still quite capable of engaging in previous activities of interest, it is worthwhile to remove a couple steps to simplify the task at hand to make it a bit easier and failure free. Also, think about activities that are familiar and routine, that could be broken down and done with repetition. For example sorting, matching and/or organizing items; whether it's tools, magazines, pens and pencils, dishes or laundry. Most of all, it is essential that activities are as non-judgmental and failure free as possible. I hope this is helpful and I appreciate this forum of communication. I have the utmost respect for the compassion, love and patience caregivers have and share. Thank you!
My Mom has never been big on small talk, and in her dementia is finding it difficult to find her words, retain a thought, comprehend what others are saying to her, etc. I'm finding that she seems to enjoy my just sitting there quietly with her, holding her hand, stroking her hand or her hair, etc. I think on some level, we all respond to touch. I think being quiet with her allows her to just relax and not feel that she has to make conversation or be judged.