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Small gestures can reassure anxious or lonely older adults

Dear Carol: My dad had a severe stroke six months ago and now lives in a nearby nursing home. Dad’s always been anxious, but since the stroke and some related dementia, he’s worse than ever and I know that my daily visits help.

What worries me is that I have an event for work coming up that’s important, but it will keep me out of town for three days. I have to go for the sake of my job, but I worry about how Dad will handle my absence. The staff is great with him, but it’s not the same, of course. His memory is bad, so just telling him that I will be back soon won’t help. What can I do to help him through this? — PD.

Dear PD: I’m sorry about your dad’s stroke and the understandable worsening of his anxiety. This is hard on both of you, but you’ll get through it and so will he.

First, work with the staff and ask them to provide some small distraction for your dad during the time that you generally visit. Also, if your dad can handle phone calls, consider calling him, but talk this over with the staff before you leave. Some people are comforted by a call while others are upset because it reminds them of your absence, so ask their advice.

I had a similar experience with my own dad. There was a serious flu outbreak in our community and the nursing home blocked visits for six days. What I did was write out a pile of notes to Dad from me, one for each day that I couldn’t see him. Because both poor eyes and dementia made reading difficult for him, I typed the notes in a large, dark font and signed them in marker. I left these at the front desk of the nursing home with instructions to the staff saying that I’d like them to give a note to Dad each morning, which was my usual visiting time.

While this gesture wasn’t a substitute for a visit, the note reminded Dad each morning that I was still there for him, and he could refer to it all day. You could do your own version of this using notecards, postcards or letters, either printed or handwritten, depending on what’s best for him. Ask the staff to give him one each day at the time you usually visit. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it may help.

Other than that, all I can tell you is to detach from the situation with love in your heart and do what you need to do. Really, your dad will be fine.

Holiday note: Something tangible like a card or letter can mean the world to an older adult. Even if you do visit, consider sending or leaving with them a holiday card, or during the year, a printed note or fun card with your signature. This small gesture leaves them with a comforting reminder that you care.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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