It’s important to remember that children should be prepared before being brought to visit a grandparent. There are often changes in health your loved may have experienced since last visit. These changes are sometimes drastic like a feeding tube, partial paralysis, impaired speech, loss of mobility, further advancement of dementia. Seeing a familiar face act out of character, not remember their name, or the simple addition of an oxygen tank can be scary.
So how should you prepare child?
Explain without over explaining. You can tell your child about any new health issues grandma/pa may currently have without going into details they don’t understand. For example: If Grandpa has Alzheimer's, describe it as "Grandpa has a problem remembering things.”
Faced with a grandparent who has had a stroke, for example, reassure children that it's OK to feel shy around a person who suddenly doesn't feel familiar anymore. Parents should brief a child on what to expect — Grandma can't talk or Grandpa has to stay in bed — before a visit.
Hearing a child out lets parents figure out a child's fears and concerns, which may be completely different from what the adult expects. "Premature reassurances don't let the child unburden his heart,". "Don't respond until you have the full picture."
When children do have questions, keep it simple. "Even a lot of teens don't understand what's in their bodies," said Dr. Jeffrey Wright, medical director of the Pediatric Care Center at the University of Washington Medical Center and a UW professor of pediatrics. "Parents are better off describing the symptoms, rather than the disease itself." "Try to make it as practical and real — how it relates to the child's life.”
If you are visiting someone in a Hospital or Assisted Living Facility how old should your child be?
The child's age, personality and temperament, as well as the grandparent's condition, should determine whether a child visits. Children who are sensitive, prone to nightmares or have vivid imaginations might find all the machines, tubes, sounds and smells too frightening. Babies and toddlers who are full of grinning energy make good visitors. For toddlers, make sure they've had a nap beforehand and are fed.
Give older children the option of going along, making sure there is a backup who can drive them home early if they find they're uncomfortable and you need to stay at the hospital. Explain the function of some equipment ("the machines give medicine," "the tubes help him breathe") before children go in.
Before your visit:
Talk about what to expect during a visit to a nursing home (e.g. residents in wheelchairs, unfamiliar smells, some residents may not seem responsive, etc.). Answer any questions or concerns children may have.
Call the facility in advance to ask what the best time of day to visit is. There are lots of daily occurrences such as bathing, maintenance/cleaning of medical devices, administration of medication that are best to work around. This is especially important with Dementia as some parts of the day may be better or worse for someone to handle visitors.
Typically mid-morning from 10:00-11:30 am (after breakfast), 2:00-4:30 (After Lunch & Nap), sometimes in the evening from 6:00-7:30 pm. are a good framework to work off of.
Children can bring gifts, like drawings or colorful, handmade cards. Or work on a project beforehand like making a scrapbook of funny cartoons (which children have either drawn or cut out of the newspaper) to share. Bringing something to keep children occupied after they have had their turn to chat so you have time to talk and catch up is always a good idea too.
Children may need some gentle encouragement to get past their shyness. Children can talk about what they like to do in school, or what hobbies they have or sports they play. This might lead into questions about sports or hobbies the older adult might be interested in, or their memories of their schooldays. Young children might bring a favorite stuffed animal to "introduce".
Don't be in a hurry. Most residents have time on their hands and your visit will probably seem short no matter how long you stay.
Before children visit a nursing home, you may want to read and talk about some of these books:
A Little Something by Susan V. Bosak; Sunshine Home by Eve Bunting;
My Grandma's in a Nursing Home by Judy Delton;
Loop the Loop by Barbara Dugan; Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox;
Always Gramma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson;
Remember That by Lesléa Newman;
A Visit to Oma by Marisabina Russo;
Old People, Frogs and Albert by Nancy Hope Wilson.
After a first visit to a nursing home, always talk about what happened and how children felt.
Visits these sites to read more: