Adventures in Elder Care: Ministering to the Elderly and Their Caregivers

I didn’t feel I could conclude this series without a post about ministering to the elderly. Some of what I wrote about how to help parents as they age would apply generally, but I wanted specifically to address ways to minister to an elderly person who is not your parent.

Neighbors. If you live near an elderly person who is still in his or her own home, just being a good neighbor is a great first step. Greeting them, talking over the back fence or the mailbox, sharing from your garden, taking them treats (after asking about dietary restrictions), etc., are all ways to keep in touch. Most would welcome a visit, but don’t assume that because they’re older and at home most of the time that they don’t mind if you drop in any time. Some wouldn’t, but some would: as you get to know your neighbor, you’ll be able to discern whether she likes to have company or not, or when might be a good time. You want to be alert for ways that they might need help, but you don’t want to run roughshod into their lives or make them feel useless and helpless. Some might love to have you cut their grass, for instance, but some might take pride that they’re still able to do it and might like the exercise. You might especially be alert to checking on them if you haven’t seen them out for a while.

Visiting facilities. If someone you know is in an assisted living facility or a nursing home, visiting them is probably the number one way to minister to them. Even if they have family that visits often, there are still a number of hours in the day when they don’t have visitors (and it helps the family to know that they are not the only ones who care about the loved one). Some will be more involved in the activities of their facilities than others: you might check with them (depending on their mental abilities) or their family members or even one of the staff members to ask when would be the best time.

Some churches have a regular visitation program for their senior members, which is nice. Just don’t do what one lady did: we happened to be visiting my in-laws at their home when a couple of ladies from their church came to visit my husband’s mom. I believe they brought her a flower, and after she exclaimed about it and expressed thanks for their visit (probably more than once), one of them said, “Well, you were on our list.” If you’re doing something for someone just because they’re on a list of some kind — there is no need to say that! It would be much better to ask the Lord before visiting to help you be a blessing and to have wisdom to know how to best minister to and encourage that person.

What might you do when you visit? Ask about the person, how they’re doing, what their day was like. I read a post about visiting the sick where the writer concentrated only on spiritual issues, like praying with them or reading the Bible or encouraging them with the Word, but left out anything personal. Yes, do those spiritual things: an elderly person might not to be able to or remember to read the Bible on their own, and even if they do, the fellowship of doing it with other believers is a great benefit. But don’t make them feel like they’re a project, like the ladies in the above paragraph. Show a personal interest in them. When you do read the Bible to them, remember some might be hard of hearing. It helps to sit right in front of them so they can see your lips moving and to read in a firm, clear, loud but not yelling voice. One friend used to read aloud and discuss something from the large print Readers Digest with my mother-in-law. Going through a photo album and talking about her loved ones was one of her favorite activities as well.

Often when visiting the person you know in a facility, you’ll have occasion to talk for a bit with other residents. Many in assisted living are fine mentally but can’t live at home for various reasons, and we enjoyed chatting with and getting to know some of them.  I mentioned in an earlier post that things can get a little more complicated when the other residents have a higher degree of dementia. The number one thing we were told was “Don’t alter their reality.” If you try to talk them out of whatever they think is happening, they can get greatly agitated, and that causes more problems not only for the person but also for the staff. When my mother-in-law was in a memory care unit made up primarily of Alzheimer’s patients, residents would often stop visitors to ask for their help in some way. Most of them were constantly trying to figure out a way to get out, not because it was so terrible, but just because they knew on some level that they were not home. When we couldn’t help them in whatever way they wanted, they’d get upset, which again caused more problems for everyone involved. Sometimes you can redirect them: once my husband told a resident who wanted him to help her find her car so she could go home, “Well, they’re just about to serve dinner – why don’t you eat with us and we’ll see about the car later.” She graciously accepted. 🙂 Other times we’d just say, “I’m sorry, I’m just visiting, but maybe that person can help you” and point them to a staff member. Honestly, in that place, sometimes we’d just try to avoid eye contact and go straight to my mother-in-law’s room. I felt bad about that, but that seemed the best way to keep the peace. In the nursing home, when someone said they needed help or wanted to get up or whatever, we’d just pat their hand and tell them someone would be along to help them in a few minutes. If someone seemed in real distress, we’d go find a staff member. I’d caution against giving a person other than your family member any physical help or even going into their room. If someone has fallen, you could do more harm than good and open yourself and the facility up to a lawsuit if something negative happened (or even if the resident accused you of something negative). I wouldn’t even help wheel a resident from one place to another without asking a staff member if it is all right: it may be they are supposed to be where they are rather than back in their room at that point in time.

Gifts. Sometimes people like to bring things when they visit. Most of the time it’s not necessary: just the time with you is the best gift. But there are things that make for good gifts and things that don’t. A lot depends on the individual person. Before bringing any food item, check on food allergies or dietary restrictions. Unless you know the person to be in sound mind, I’d check with someone other than them. Again, depending on a person’s abilities, a fruit basket may not be best. It’s healthy, but some might not be able to peel fruit or might not have knives in their room to cut them up, and it might spoil before they can finish it. I’d generally avoid decorative items unless you know the person could use them. Most have had to downsize their possessions to be able to live in one or two rooms and only have limited space on their walls or end tables. An exception would be anything that children have drawn or colored – most love that and can tape the items on a door or somewhere.

Some items that have made good gift baskets for my mother-in-law in the past:

All-occasion greeting cards (back when she was still sending cards)
Stationery and stamps (when she was still writing)
Pens and pencils
Lotions (some might have skin sensitivities)
Bath items: nice-smelling shampoo, body wash, powder. Avoid bath oils – too slippery
Large-print books, magazines, crossword or word search puzzle books
Small individually wrapped chewable candies
Small packages of cookies
Small throw blankets
Slip-proof socks
Magnifying glass
Flowers or plants (see note below)

In our experience, cut flowers (even from the visitor’s own garden) worked better than plants. The staff in a facility doesn’t have time to care for a plant. I personally do not have a green thumb. Unless the resident is aware enough to care for one or has family members who visit often enough and don’t mind caring for a plant, cut flowers are best to brighten up the room for a few days and then can be discarded.

Most facilities do not allow any medication in resident’s rooms: all medication has to be dispensed by the staff (though we did get away with Tums), so I wouldn’t include medicine in a gift basket to someone in a facility.

Cards and notes. My mother-in-law has also been blessed by friends and family sending cards. That is a highlight of her day when I bring in a note or card someone has sent and read it to her.

Value. Sometimes we might wonder how much good we’re doing when we visit or send cards, especially if the person has dementia and might not even remember who we are or that we visited or wrote. They might not remember, but for those few minutes you’ve brightened their day and brought them joy, so I’d say, yes, it’s worth it. I wrote in an earlier post, when I struggled whether it was worth it to drive for 40 minutes round trip for 10-15 minutes of groggy conversation, “But really, visiting her shouldn’t be about making me ‘feel useful.’ It’s about letting her know she’s loved and not forgotten and ministering to her in whatever way she needs.” Remember to minister “with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Ephesians 6:7).

Ministering to caregivers. I wanted to mention ministering to caregivers briefly, rather than a separate post, because I don’t have that much to say about it. It has greatly ministered to our hearts when someone have ministered to my mother-in-law in any way. I can’t tell you how much of an encouragement it is when someone goes to see her or writes to her. It’s encouraging when people ask about her, too, but if I can say this without it sounding wrong – ask about her, but ask about other things, too. When my husband was going through months of issues with his eye after a detached retina, he said that all anyone ever talked to him about was his mom and his eye. It’s not that he didn’t appreciate those questions: he did, but it would have been nice to talk about something else sometimes. Often when asked about my mother-in-law, there is really nothing new to say. When people ask me how she’s doing, I generally say, “About the same.” Some seem a little perturbed by that, so sometimes I go on to say, “She sleeps a lot, eats well, talks a lot sometimes but not at all other times.” I figure they don’t really want to know about bowel difficulties or things like that. 🙂 That’s pretty much her life right now. I don’t want people to forget about her and I appreciate their asking, but just understand there is often not much to say. “About the same” is at least a better answer than “She’s declining,” which is what we had to answer for several months before we brought her home. Sometimes people would seem startled by that response, but as a person gets older, that’s what happens.

A few times, especially when we first brought my mother-in-law home, it greatly ministered to me when someone asked, “How are you doing?” and listened with empathy and without judging when I said I was struggling with the idea.

It also helps when people understand that people caring for a parent might not be as available as they once were. A friend’s mother still lives in her own home an hour away and has had so many medical needs and procedures that my friend has had to lay aside some ministries she was involved in to be able to take her mother to various doctors and help her after procedures. In our case, my mother-in-law can’t be left alone, so we can only do things during the morning and early afternoon while we have home health care here, or we have to take turns or just have one of us go to events in the afternoons or evenings. Some times that’s fine, other times I’d rather stay at home than go by myself, and I don’t like to be out too often and leave my husband to spend his evenings or weekends caring for his mom alone after working 50-60 hours a week. Occasionally we’ll pay extra for home health care to be here in the evening, usually when the family is all here so we can go out, but otherwise we just accept that this is going to be a quiet and somewhat limited phase of life. It’s similar to having a new baby in the home: for a period of time, caring for that family member is one’s primary ministry.

Besides showing an interest in my mother-in-law, there is not really much that we need personally. We haven’t needed meals or errands run or that kind of thing. I did come across one article with some ideas along those lines, and Sandy, whose husband received a heart-breaking diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s while in his 40s, has mentioned in passing things that people have done that have blessed her family.

I’d love to hear more ideas from you. If you have an older loved one, what are some things that people have done that have been a help to you?

Other posts in the Adventures in Elder Care series:

Helping Parents As They Age.
Making Decisions for a Parent’s Care.
Our Experiences With Assisted Living and Nursing Homes.
Caring for a Parent at Home.
A Plea to Caregivers.

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Elder Care: Ministering to the Elderly and Their Caregivers

  1. Barbara, thank you so much for this series you have done on elder care. It does mean a lot to people when they are asked about their parent, but I also liked that you mentioned they also like talking about other things. The illustration you gave of your husband after his surgery for the detached retina fit that perfectly. These words spoke deeply to me…” otherwise we just accept that this is going to be a quiet and somewhat limited phase of life” There is an acceptance of that fact that we all need to do…whether we be the caregivers or someone on the outside looking in, that they not judge, but realize that ministry comes in many forms. Thank you again, Barbara..

  2. Another very informative and helpful post, Barbara. There are many people who want to help but haven’t ever been exposed to knowing how; your series has been great to share practical tips that most of us could do.

  3. Pingback: Adventures in Elder Care | Stray Thoughts

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