10/09/2012 03:32 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2012

How to Behave When Visiting a Nursing Home


Visiting loved ones in their nursing homes is essential for your well-being as well as theirs. When your loved one is admitted, talk with the administrator or director of nursing about their policies for visits. Some facilities have written guidelines. If they don't, have a general discussion with them about the topic.

There may be some unwritten rules -- do's and don'ts regarding your interactions with the residents and staff. Some of the more important ones are summarized below:

Do's for Visiting Your Loved One:
• Respect the resident's privacy. This includes knocking before you enter the room and stepping out into the hall when personal care is being provided. You don't need to be present when the resident is being changed or taken to the toilet.

• Be warm in interacting with your loved one. Smile frequently and use therapeutic touch unless the person specifically does not want to be touched.

• Keep the conversation positive and refrain from arguing. Otherwise, the patient may become upset or depressed. This is especially important when visiting a person with dementia.

Don'ts for Visiting Your Loved One:

• Don't take unruly pets or children to visit. If the children are well-behaved, however, they can provide extra pleasure to the patient. Take a pet if the person enjoys it, but check with the facility first to find out if they have a policy about pet visits. Some facilities require proof the animal's shots are up-to-date.

• Don't wake up residents who are sleeping. They probably need the sleep and won't enjoy your visit much if they are groggy.

• Don't take food or beverages your loved one isn't allowed to have. Check with the staff first if you have any questions about what's permissible. Also, never give food to other residents without checking with the staff.

• Don't have large groups of family and/or friends visit at the same time. This may overwhelm residents or make them anxious. How many visitors are too many? This will be different for every resident. Observe your loved one's mood and try to determine if there are too many people visiting.

• Don't stay too long. It may tire your loved one and interfere with the staff's provision of needed care. How long is too long? That depends. Again, it is different for every resident. Look for cues that your loved one may be getting tired or stressed out.

• Do not interrupt the resident's activity time. Find out from the staff when activities are scheduled. It may be acceptable to sit beside them and just observe unless your presence distracts them from the activity. You can get guidance from the staff.

Do's for Interacting With Staff:

• Learn the names of staff members involved in your loved one's care and be warm in your interactions with them. Thank them for any special services.

• If the facility has visiting hours respect them. Otherwise you may impede the staff from carrying out their caregiving duties.

• Keep the lines of communication open. Should there be a problem, communicate it promptly and directly to the administrator or director of nursing. Never confront an aide directly.

• Attend the regularly scheduled care conferences to which you are invited. This is a good time to discuss your wishes or concerns about the care your loved one is receiving and get updates on how he or she is doing.

Don'ts for Interacting With Staff:

• Don't order the staff around. If you have requests talk to the director of nursing or the administrator, depending on the nature of the request.

• Don't give tips or bring gifts for the staff if the facility has guidelines forbidding them. Check with staff about their policy. Some facilities allow holiday gifts. If no gifts are allowed, give handwritten thank-you cards to those you want to recognize.

• Don't be a chronic complainer. It's like crying wolf. Before you lodge a complaint, ask yourself if it's really a problem.

• Don't have unrealistic expectations. Understand that the staff has many patients to care for and may not have time to do every tiny thing you'd like. Again, before complaining, make sure it's a problem -- not just a preference.

• Don't visit at mealtime unless you have checked with the administrator regarding the facility's policies. Some nursing homes welcome visitors to dine with their loved ones; others do not.

Following these simple guidelines will help you avoid problems that could occur. It will also make your visits far more pleasant for everyone.

A slightly different version of this post was published on the Alzheimer's Reading Room.