People cite numerous reasons for why they hate visiting nursing homes. Some can’t stand funky smells, others find the sight of disengaged, listless seniors depressing, and most feel guilty over the fact that they’d rather spend time anywhere else.

The truth is that most of us experience some level of discomfort over the thought of visiting a skilled nursing facility. This aversion is very similar to the widespread dislike of hospitals. These are places where people go when they are very ill and require a high level of care.  For families who have loved ones living in nursing homes, this discomfort can often get in the way of providing proper support. However, nursing home residents are most in need of regular companionship, support and advocacy. If you’re struggling to establish and stick to a visiting schedule with a loved one in a skilled nursing facility, it’s important to identify what’s holding you back so you can find ways to move past it.

Reasons Why People Avoid Nursing Home Visits

Unpleasant Smells

Let’s tackle the smell issue first, since I’ve even heard this excuse from people who have never darkened the door of a nursing home. Incontinence is an unfortunate part of aging and various illnesses, but in a quality care setting, unpleasant odors should be fleeting. Accidents happen, especially with seniors who require the highest level of long-term care available.

A good skilled nursing facility should handle incontinence incidents quickly and thoroughly. If any senior living setting consistently smells of human waste, or even cleaning products, this could be a clue that there are staffing or procedural issues. For example, there may not be enough aides to regularly assist with toileting and changing residents, leading to recurring accidents that are not handled in a timely manner. This could be a red flag for you to check into how good the care is overall.

Generally, most nursing homes carry the scent of older individuals (known as nonenal), but the odor inside should never be consistently unpleasant. Because this is a telling indicator of the quality of care a senior is receiving, it’s important to visit so you can monitor and advocate for your loved one.

Outdated Notions of Nursing Homes

Many of our reservations about nursing homes come from old-fashioned concepts of these facilities. Older generations remember the cold, institutional aspects of the “old folks’ homes” they visited decades ago, while younger generations are largely influenced by negative stories and exaggerated representations of skilled nursing facilities in the media. If you haven’t visited a nursing home in many years—or ever—it’s important to challenge the mental image you are clinging to. If, by some off chance, your suspicions are confirmed, then it’s imperative that you are aware of your loved one’s predicament and help them transfer to another facility.

Elder care facilities have changed significantly in recent decades by adopting more stringent regulations, focusing on personalized care and services, creating a more home-like environment, and enacting initiatives to improve residents’ quality of life. In a good nursing home, the residents should be treated with respect, not as if they are lumps to be moved from place to place. The staff should develop real human connections with the people they are caring for and strive to keep them engaged and in good spirits.

Thoughts of Mortality

Personally, I feel that one huge reason many people avoid going into nursing homes is that both patients and visitors are forced to consider their own mortality when confronted with settings like these. The fact is, loss is an inevitable part of long-term care. For many, a nursing home will be their final home. Naturally, we don’t like that feeling, but death is an inescapable part of life.

If this issue is at the heart of your reluctance to visit, then make the choice to stare your fear in the face. Visit your loved one in the nursing home and make yourself useful with other residents as well. Advocate for improvements so that all residents, your loved one included, are able to enjoy their remaining time as much as possible. Although thoughts of mortality may make family and friends uncomfortable, the residents needs your continued support.

Caregiver Guilt

Countless caregivers experience unrelenting guilt over having to place their loved ones in nursing homes. Many feel that their love alone should enable them to personally provide hands-on care for a family member at home, but this is often an unrealistic ideal, especially in cases where the care recipient has a chronic, progressive health condition. Making the decision to place a loved one in long-term care is seldom easy. However, the guilt that so frequently accompanies this choice is entirely undeserved, whether it is self-imposed, coming from your care recipient, or placed upon you by family members friends or other onlookers.

Elders are not accepted as residents in skilled nursing facilities unless they have a medical need to be there. Living in a nursing home is nobody’s ideal plan for getting older. But, when a senior requires such a high level of care, this setting is the safest, most affordable option for them and their family caregiver(s).

You can choose to focus on the negative aspects of this reality and needlessly blame yourself for how your loved one must live in an unfamiliar place and receive care from strangers. Or you can choose to focus on the positive and take charge of what is still in your control. They may hate their new home, but you can still visit, strive to brighten their day and make them feel loved.

In some instances, a caregiver may wind up taking the move to a nursing home harder than the senior does. Do not forget that you are helping set the tone for this new arrangement. It may seem unlikely, but many elders thrive in long-term care settings. Rather than grieving the loss of your loved one’s independence, channel your energy into helping them adapt and improving their quality of life.

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What to Do When You Visit A Nursing Home

Once you’ve addressed your reasons for avoiding the nursing home, constructive ideas for visits can help minimize any remaining discomfort you have and ensure you make the most of time spent with your loved one.

Do a little thinking about the person you are going to see before you drop by. What kind of activities have they always enjoyed? Do they like a certain type of music, a particular game or other pastimes? Get creative and try to incorporate these things into your visits if you can. Order a CD of their favorite artist or genre and listen to it with them. Play cards or dominos, do crafty projects, or engage in some other engrossing activity during your time together. This will ensure you aren’t pressured to carry the conversation and you don’t end up just sitting in their room with nothing to do. Music in particular can really help minimize awkwardness when visiting a senior who isn’t very social or has who difficulty with memory and/or communication.

Some seniors are content to watch TV in silence with their visitors, and that’s okay. But even low-key activities can make visits more meaningful for both of you. If your loved one enjoys talking, bring an old photo album with you and try reminiscing about the pictures of people, places and events it contains. Even if your elder has Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, the ability to recognize faces often remains for much longer than you’d think. Some seniors with significant memory loss will remember a face from their childhood even though they may not be able to recognize the person visiting them. Bring that photo album. If you don’t have one, a relative likely does.

Human touch is important as well. Just be gentle and watch your loved one’s body language for subtle cues to ensure they’re comfortable. Some elders enjoy affection and attention, while others would consider a hand or back rub an invasion of their personal space. Even if you know the person you’re visiting well, be gentle, respectful and aware of their reactions to touch. Something as simple as holding a hand or stroking an arm can be very soothing and reassuring in an environment where most interactions with other people revolve around personal and medical care.

Reading together can be a surprisingly powerful way to connect. Reading aloud from a favorite book, the bible or even a magazine lets the person know they are being attended to, without putting undue pressure on either of you to think of topics to discuss.

If you get frustrated or question the value of your visits, remember that you may reside in long-term care one day. You will want visitors. You will want to know that people love you enough to overcome their reluctance to visit a nursing home. You will also want to know that your loved ones are watching out to make sure you are well cared for. So, as they say, get over your inhibitions and just do it.