Tips to communicate with your elderly loved ones

There is an undeniable excitement in the air at the Johnstone-Ram household.

It starts first thing in the morning when my six-year-old, upon waking, flies to the living room with two things on her mind. One is the Lego Advent Calendar, which shamelessly I purchased primarily for my inner child.

My daughter picked up on this vibe early and to date, hasn't allowed me to open any of the little doors or create the holiday scene. Not completely void of goodwill, she does however let me play with the "extra" pieces.

Once the Lego is crossed off the list, Carly leaps over to the calendar to cross off the day before and count how many more sleeps until we leave for Toronto. This will be her very first Christmas with my side of family.

I'm equally vibrating with excitement as it's been over 10 years since I've spent a Christmas with my Mom, siblings and nieces and nephews.

Although all my grandparents have died, I still have a multitude of aging family and friends, some of whom are now well into their 80s and 90s.

This translates into large gatherings and afternoon visits at assisted living and residential care facilities; the perfect way to lift spirits and bring a good dose of holiday cheer into the lives of those I cherish.

When in "party mode," I tend to forget all the advice I give others about aging and caring for elderly family members. These tips for including aging family members in holiday celebrations are as much for me as they are for you!

Holiday visits are typically centred around good food and conversation. Keep the following communication tips in mind when spending time with your aging loved ones.

• Always speak face to face, not from behind. Keep your hands away from your mouth.

• Get the person's attention first by a gentle touch, wave, or calling their name.

• When speaking with a person in a wheelchair, bend down to their eye level before talking,

• Ask your loved one if they need assistance before doing something for them. Don't be offended if they don't take you up on your offer to help.

• Ask how you can help and listen for instructions.

• During conversation, minimize or eliminate background noise, such as radio, television, other people, etc.

• If it's difficult for your loved one to communicate, use all modes of communication — writing, drawing, yes/no, eye contact, facial expressions, etc.

• If you are communicating with a loved one with cognitive impairment, keep your message simple and give only one message at a time.

For those family members who feel uncertain or unsure about how to create enjoyable visits with loved ones, you may find the following tips helpful:

• Emphasize one-to-one or small group interaction.

• Do something that promotes conversation or sharing such as playing with a pet, looking at old and recent photos, baking cookies, playing cards or a board game, enjoying music, going for a walk or having your teenager bring in their latest gadget and playing slideshows or watching videos together

• Recognize the frail elders' limitations. Short, frequent visits are often better than long, infrequent visits.

• Provide plenty of choice and allow your aging loved one to say when he or she prefers to visit or not visit.

• Many seniors have fewer opportunities to connect through touch, be it a gentle hug, a handshake or simply an arm around the shoulder. Reaching out with such simple gestures bring much joy and happiness to our aging loved ones.

Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Solutions. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.

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