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Successful Aging: 6 tips to help a loved one in a skilled nursing facility

Q. I enjoy your columns in the Sunday newspaper and appreciate your focus on the healthier philosophies on aging that include a positive quality of life. However, sometimes “life is life” and people find themselves in situations they never expected that often occur for those of a “special age.” We need advice to help cope with life in a roughly 10 x 12 foot dimly painted room shared with another person. So please, include a column on navigating skilled nursing facilities.


Dear readers. I followed up this email with a phone call to S.M. She offered some important suggestions on how to help residents of a skilled nursing facility maximize the quality of their lives.

Here’s the back story. Ms. M is a mental health professional. Her husband has profound physical limitations that require 24-hour skilled nursing care. He has been living in such a facility for the past three years. In Ms. M’s email, she outlined what a loved one or volunteer can do to make the skilled nursing experience more humane and caring.

Note individuals who need skilled nursing care may require round the clock care, close supervision to prevent wandering, assistance with meals, personal hygiene, medication, getting in and out of bed and incontinence. For some, these facilities are used for rehabilitation after a hospital stay; then these individuals head home. For others, the facility becomes their home.

Based on her many visits to spend time with her husband and her professional background, Ms. M shared some suggestions. Despite her comments, she notes the facility where her husband resides is a good one. Yet, she adds, “more can be done.” Some of that is up to caring family members and friends.

Here are some of her suggestions.

Activities: “It doesn’t always have to be Bingo. If there are activities you would like to see included, speak to the Activities and Social Work Directors. Take gardening as an example. In an accessible environment, implementing a gardening activity is not costly,” she added.

Food Part 1: “One of the most disliked subjects discussed is food.” She acknowledges that the food director has the challenge of having to offer meals in responses to various tastes and special diets. Her advice is not to just complain, but to offer suggestions. She observed that on a hot day, lemonade was available made from a powdered mix. She suggested using some of the left-over fruits and vegetables like cucumbers to make infused water – which is more thirst quenching.

Food Part 2: “Condiments are important.” Depending on dietary restrictions, many nursing facilities allow their residents to keep small containers of shelf-stable condiments in their room cabinets. She indicated that these little extras make food tastier and even gives residents some control of their food enhancements. At small quantities of condiments can be purchased. They are packaged in a ziplock bag which makes it easy to keep them on hand. She suggests thinking about salad dressing, hot sauce or croutons for a salad.

Television: Often the television selection is limited. If appropriate, buy a Roku (digital media player that allows you to stream video, music, and entertainment content) or a FireStick (allows you to connect to WIFI). The residents will have the opportunity to watch what they want which might be Netflix, the football channel and more.

Facebook: “If the resident is capable of learning to use a tablet or smartphone, have them connect to FaceBook.” She feels this is a “must” since it provides the opportunity to stay connected to old friends and even spouses of nieces and nephews who live out of the area.

Include, include, include: “Include your loved one; don’t just visit,” she remarked. “Be there more than just holiday time. It’s not fun being forgotten because your body no longer cooperates. I’ve seen families show up with gifts and hugs, and then off they go to a family gathering saying, ‘It’s been nice seeing you.’” Watch a movie together, bring treats, play cards or a board game. In addition to visits, highlight holidays. Ms. M recently saw a family arrange with the staff to use an area of the dining room mid-morning to have the traditional family Easter brunch.

Her message is clear: “Use creativity to add a sense of normalcy for the resident and you. Imagination and empathy are key.”

Thank you, Ms. M, for your thoughtful and important observations and advice.

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