Have you ever dropped in unannounced, just to check on your aging parent and his or her caregiver?
If not, you should.
There is so much more to true daily caregiving beyond just feeding, dressing and medicating a patient. Environment is everything. Does the caregiver speak compassionately to Mom throughout the day? (Does she speak to Mom at all?) Is there light music playing in the background to elevate the mood at home or in Mom’s room in the facility, or is the caregiver glued to her cellphone and texting while blasting endless angry hours of daytime television at your dad to keep him “occupied?” How often are the sheets changed? How often does your parent get outside for some sunshine and fresh air? Where did they go on their last outing? How do they pass the time?
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the answers to these questions, but do make it a point to try to find out more about the daily atmosphere in which your parent is living. If distance or other physical obstacles prohibit you from dropping by, enlist the aid of a friend or relative, or even a clergyperson who lives in the area.
If the thought of showing up unannounced on anyone’s doorstep , even at the home of your own parents, makes you break out in hives, then phone ahead without much notice— perhaps just prior to hopping in the car and heading over. The whole point is to see what the atmosphere is like on any given day and at any given hour. Feel free to bring Mom’s favorite snack or beverage, a plant or flowers to brighten the home, a box of tea, etc., as an ice-breaker. “May I pick anything up for you and Mom while I’m still out?” is a friendly and non-threatening conversation starter.
What to look for when dropping in unannounced on your aging parent and caregiver:
- Glance around the main living area to see whether it’s clean and tidy, or whether yesterday’s lunch dishes are still stacked in the sink (or worse, haven’t even made it to the sink). Dad’s bathroom should be wiped up for his safety and sanitation, his sheets should be clean and fresh—certainly not soiled. Above all, your parent should appear to be groomed and wearing clean clothes. Other signs of trouble: Extreme body odor, greasy, unkempt hair, overgrown fingernails, raw, angry skin in need of care, bad breath.
- On a similar note, is your parent dressed, or is Mom hanging out in her bathrobe and nightie at 3:00 p.m.? Daily routine is important to us all, and simply being allowed the dignity of ritual washing and grooming, along with fresh clothing, can make for a happier day and a greater feeling of productivity in any human being.
- As you sit and make conversation with your parent, take a look at his or her view of the world. Can Dad reach his books and his iPad from his chair? What surrounds him to help him stay occupied? Can he look out the window, or at photos of family members? Can he reach the telephone if he wants to make a call or to answer one made to him? Make any necessary adjustments while you’re there—a pillow, a handmade blanket from the guestroom, a photo album brought to your parent to peruse … these can all improve anyone’s mood by surrounding them with love.
- Chat with your parent. While still keeping the visit upbeat, ask Mom directly how she feels about the quality of the care she’s receiving. While it’s true that you may have to take some of what she says with a grain of salt thanks to the effects of aging, if there are any complaints, you should hear them out and see if they ring true to you.
- Don’t forget to engage in conversation with the caregiver herself. Is she friendly? Does she seem put out by your visit? A true professional would welcome the added brightness this visit brings to her patient’s otherwise ordinary day. It is okay to ask about excursions and doctor’s visits. In fact, you have every reason to do so. Use this as a springboard to better ongoing communication between the two of you. If the caregiver pushes back, she may not be easy to get along with, and that could mean that your parent also has trouble getting his or her own needs met by this person. This is also a great opportunity to see how the caregiver presents herself outwardly in other ways. Is she dressed in clean, professional clothing? Does she reek of cigarette smoke? Perhaps your dad has had to give up smoking. Can you trust this match? We all have good and bad days, so just take this visit as what it is—a welfare check on your aging parent. Of course, should you see anything truly alarming, deal with it immediately. Don’t forget, always listen to your gut …
If you need any help sorting through these or other issues you encounter while navigating the difficult waters of eldercare, please reach out to me.
All the best,
Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D.