Five Tips for Successful Reunion Visits in Long-Term Care

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No Visitor Policies Due to COVID-19 Kept Senior Loved Ones and Families Far Apart for Weeks

BOSTON – Skilled nursing facilities and long-term chronic care hospitals across the country, in lockdown due to COVID-19 since early March, are beginning to plan a return to visitations between seniors and their family members now that the federal government has issued visitation guidelines.

While each facility will tailor their timing and approach to safe visitation, families anxiously await their opportunity to rekindle face-to-face communication with their aging parents or relatives. “Understanding and respecting your facility’s policies about visitation and social distancing will be key,” said Tammy Retalic, Chief Nursing Officer and Vice President of Patient Care Services for Hebrew SeniorLife, a national senior services leader uniquely dedicated to investigating, understanding, and enhancing the experience of aging. “Not only do we want first visits together to be successful, we also want both you and your loved ones to remain as safe as possible during your visit.” 

To help ensure a successful reunion, Retalic offers these five tips to help prepare for the first visit. 

•   Plan ahead:  Talk with the care team to better understand your loved one’s current state of mind and experience during the pandemic. Come prepared with conservation starters, such as fond memories and home happenings. Use your Zoom or FaceTime calls leading up to the visit creatively, whether that means connecting additional family members on the call, talking about the upcoming visit, playing music, or engaging in simple games like I Spy or 20 Questions.

•   Remember it will be emotional:  Even with the widespread, effective use of Zoom and FaceTime between seniors and their families over the past 12 weeks, there is nothing that replaces the in-person visit. You will be nervous about how your loved one will respond to seeing you after so many weeks, and emotions will run very high on both sides. Bring your tissues. 

•   Recognize loved ones may be frustrated: Despite your best efforts – as well as those by your loved one’s care team - to communicate about COVID-19 and the lack of in-person visits over the past few months, patients may not have fully grasped why their visitation routines were curtailed. There may be frustration, questions, and hurt feelings your loved one expresses in that first return visit. Understand that and be prepared to answer their questions in a direct, honest manner.

•   Embrace the silence: The first visit could seem very long, even if it is just ten minutes. Not all patients are conversational and after so much time apart, may not want to engage immediately. Be present and embrace the lulls in conversation; it may take time to re-establish the former communications cadence you had together prior to COVID-19. 

•   Overcome new normal challenges: Facemasks and screenings will be a fact of life for a long time. Remember that masks will make it harder to hear and speak – for both of you. Look and share that important eye contact – smiling eyes and laugh lines can help communicate where words are difficult to comprehend and hugging is not allowed. Be aware you may need to speak louder, talk more slowly, and listen extra carefully as your loved one shares their thoughts behind a mask. If your loved one has had medical challenges or cognitive changes over the past few months, they may look different or respond differently to conversation now. 

Reunions after long periods of time apart can fall short of expectations, especially in a COVID-19 world where nothing is returning to a previous state of normalcy. But by recognizing this fact and planning ahead, family members can create a positive environment for that initial re-encounter, and maximize the opportunity to engage their loved ones in mutually rewarding conversations that bring them closer together than ever before.

About Hebrew SeniorLife
Hebrew SeniorLife, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, is a national senior services leader uniquely dedicated to rethinking, researching, and redefining the possibilities of aging. Based in Boston, the nonprofit, non-sectarian organization has provided communities and healthcare for seniors, research into aging, and education for geriatric care providers since 1903. For more information about Hebrew SeniorLife, visit http://www.hebrewseniorlife.org, follow us on Twitter @H_SeniorLife, like us on Facebook, or read our blog.