By: Lisa Philippart

Before I decided to open my own private practice, I had worked as a geriatric counselor in the nursing home setting. I was referred to clients who either had a history of mental illness and needed continuity of care or to residents who were exhibiting “challenging” behaviors. I was honored to work with these residents who displayed courage, humor, and intelligence as they neared the end of their lives. As we talked about their accomplishments and challenges and they shared their stories with me, I often thought about how many of their family members were missing out on spending time with their loved ones. Tragically, I was sometimes the only “company” a resident would have, and this would break my heart. Over the years, I would ask residents what they would like visitors, family, staff, and friends to know about their situation, and what could make their lives better in the nursing home setting. This is my list of the most common suggestions that the residents shared with me:

1. We need something to look forward to. Your visit, no matter how short, makes my day. And please don’t tell me that you will be coming to see me, and then don’t show up. You think we don’t remember, but we do.
2. We like schedules and routines. We have lots of time on our hands, and it helps to know that there is a plan for our day...even if it is only breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
3. We need to keep moving. We may complain about our aches and pains, but it becomes important for our sense of independence and overall well-being to know that we can still go where we want, when we want.
4. No kindness is too small. For example, a resident asked me to open the blinds for her so she could look outside and enjoy the day. She thanked me so profusely, that I always walked by her room to make sure she could look out her windows.
5. Look at us with respect, not pity. We can tell the difference. Please sit down when talking to us, so we are eye level. We are doing the best we can and would appreciate your wiliness to treat us as fellow human beings. NEVER TALK TO US LIKE WE ARE CHILDREN!
6. Ask before you help us. Don’t assume you know what we want or that we want your assistance. And then listen to our responses. You can’t possibly know what it is like to be in our shoes.
7. Don’t ask how we are unless you really want to know the answer. Actually this question is useless to us. It would be better to ask us how you can help us today. We will give you an honest answer; so be prepared.
8. What you see on our outside is different than what is on the inside. Our bodies may be falling apart, but our brains might be sharp as tacks. Conversely, our thoughts may be foggy, but our bodies might be able to function just fine.
9. You will receive a much better response when you ask, rather than issue orders. We have the right to say no. And rather than argue with us, look for a compromise, or even better, let us have our way. Unless there is a safety concern, the battle is not worth the fight.
10. Words are almost as powerful as medication. We respond to both. If you want to see an immediate improvement in overall health, tell us we look nice, share a kind word, pray for us, or for a truly amazing transformation…sing! We will probably join in!

I learned so much from my clients and residents in the nursing homes...about suffering, about joy, about regret, about hope, and about life. I leave you with a bonus thought…number 11 from a resident whom I cherished and admired. She would often get frustrated and lash out at others. She wanted us to know this: “Please leave your feelings of impatience or feelings of discomfort at the door, and just spend time with me. Your presence is enough. There will come a time when you will have to let me go. But until then, my being here is not about you.”

Take action: Visit a veteran’s home or nursing home through your volunteer organization.
By: Lisa Philippart
Licensed Professional Counselor

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