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Visitors welcome, wanted: Loved ones in nursing homes thrive on interaction

DeKALB – Don Remington drives about an hour almost every day from Woodstock to DeKalb to see his wife, Jacqueline Johnson, who now lives in a nursing home.

Johnson has Parkinson's disease and it has progressed; she no longer has use of her arms and legs. She needs assistance with daily tasks such as showering and getting out of bed. She has been living in Pine Acres, 1212 S. Second St., DeKalb, since January.

Although her condition restricts her communication to only saying a couple of words at a time, Remington, who is retired from an accounting job he held for 35 years, still makes the daily trek out of love.

"She needs someone to feed her," he said. "The CNAs do that when there's no family, but I like to do that myself when I can. I try to talk to her. She likes [getting] her shoulders massaged."

Multiple studies have shown that social interaction is beneficial to the well-being of elderly people, but because of potential visitors' busy work schedules and a fear of the nursing home environment, some seniors at nursing homes aren't getting as many visits as they'd like.

The University of Illinois Extension recently held a series of workshops throughout the state on how to make a nursing home visit more meaningful. They suggested visitors spend time doing the same things they did before with their loved ones, such as watching TV or playing cards.

To keep residents occupied, local nursing homes offer many activities. Two volunteers stop by DeKalb County Rehab and Nursing Center, at 2600 N. Annie Glidden Road in DeKalb, every Monday to visit a group of about 50 different residents each week to play cards and socialize.

"It doesn't take the place of family, but at least it's a visit," said Kathy Vickers, DeKalb County Rehab and Nursing Center activities director. "A lot of people just need a good visit and a good smile."

Resident Don Sietzinger, 85, said he appreciates the volunteer visits because his family is too busy to visit him weekly. One of his sons is a doctor in Wichita, Kansas, while the other works about 16 hours a day, six days a week at his job with Nestle in Itasca.

Sietzinger said when his sons do visit, it's uplifting.

"It's just like you've been meeting a long-lost friend," he said.

Even residents who suffer from dementia benefit from visits, said Connie Peterson, Pine Acres admissions director. Family can interact with someone with dementia by talking about old memories from events that took place decades ago. Those memories are stored in a different part of the brain than memories that happened last week or last year, Peterson said.

One woman with dementia who has no close family had a friend visit recently.

"You could see the recognition in her face," Peterson said. "It's important for people to keep those connections."

Rockford resident Karen Whaley keeps connected with her sister and mother at Pine Acres by visiting at least once a week. Whaley's sister came to live at Pine Acres after a heart attack and stroke two years ago. Her mother suffers from dementia and has been at Pine Acres for six years.

Whaley works puzzles with her sister and talks about old memories with her mother.

"It's my family," she said. "I don't want to think there's no one that visits. The family plays an important part in heath care, mentally and physically."

Sunday visits from DeKalb County Rehab and Nursing Center resident Marian Stoudt's two sisters keep her spirits up. Stoudt has lived at the nursing home since she broke her femur two years ago. It will be the 92-year-old's permanent home; she sold her Shabbona house last month.

Stoudt said she chats with her sisters about recent happenings in Shabbona.

"It makes me feel good," she said. "I'd be very lonesome if no one visited."

Tips for visitors

Some suggestions for making a nursing home visit more meaningful:

• Spend time with residents doing the same things as before, like watching TV

• Provide residents more choices so they don't feel trapped in routines

• Give physical contact such as hugs and brushing hair

• Place photos and knickknacks in the resident's room to make it more homey

• Say goodbye with a routine, like saying a prayer or singing a song

Source: University of Illinois Extension

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