Top three things NOT to say to someone visiting their loved one in a nursing home


There have been numerous occasions when I have returned to my car in a furious state after a visit to see Mom (Little Red Riding Hood) at her senior living facility when a staff member said the wrong thing.

I don’t think anyone ever intentionally means to say the wrong thing. Honestly, I don’t think most staff members in these facilities realize the impact that their comments can have when every emotion we have is running at full tilt.

These unintentional slips happened much more often before I started volunteering at Mom’s place every Thursday afternoon to facilitate a Memories in the Making watercolor art class. Volunteering regularly has helped me get to know the caregivers and to be much more zen during my visits. However these slips still happen once in a while, and they still make me want to scream.

Top three worst things to say to someone visiting their loved one in a nursing home:

#1: Are you leaving already?

Really? I almost gave a receptionist a black eye one time for this one as I was signing out.  Do you realize where you work?  And that sometimes it takes everything in us visitors just to show up and see our loved one in a facility where everyone has dementia and they won’t be getting better?

No matter how nice the place is, there will always be that weird sterile smell and that cloud of heavy, stale air that hits us right in the heart as we pass through the doorway. You’re probably used to it because you work there, but I have to take a really deep breath and swallow hard each time I punch in the security code that leads me to the other side. Then as I walk the halls to look for Mom, all those blank stares, sideways smiles and random mutterings punch me right in the gut, one after another. And no matter how many times I experience it, the bottom of my stomach falls out each time I realize that Little Red Riding Hood has no idea who I am as I reach for her hand.

So yeah, my visit might be short every now and then, but I’m there. And if you know what’s best for you, smile nicely and tell me to have a great day.  It will be much safer for you.

#2:  I haven’t seen you for a long time.

You’ve got to be kidding me.  I find it hard to believe that your training manual doesn’t somewhere remind you that those with loved ones in a such a facility are already lugging around an extra fifty pounds of guilt, and that it would be best that if you don’t have anything nice to say, that you don’t say anything at all.  Little Red Riding Hood herself taught me that one many years ago, and it certainly applies here.

We’re all feeling guilty that we don’t come visit more often, so why remind us? Plus, it’s probably better for your business model to make family members feel good when they visit rather than bad, no?

#3  Wow, your Mother seems young to have Alzheimer’s.

This one also applies to anyone talking to someone who has a loved one with Alzheimer’s. This is not what we want to hear — ever.  No matter how genuinely supportive your intent, keep this comment to yourself.  When you have Alzheimer’s on the brain as much as most of us related to it do, we don’t want to think about the age of onset versus genetics piece of this frightening Alzheimer’s puzzle.

Trust me, this thought plays over and over in our head already and scares the heck out of us. It’s what bonds us Alzheimer’s kids while we’re there to visit as we exchange sad little half smiles with each other as part of our code.  We work hard to erase the thought — especially while we’re trying like hell to remember all those numeric security codes you make us remember to get through each door.  So we don’t need you to remind us.

Don’t get me wrong, the place where Little Red Riding Hood lives is wonderful and I feel very fortunate that she is safe and well cared for.  I have made many friends with the people who work at Mom’s place, many whose smiles warm my heart when they remember my name and  tell me stories about my sweet Mom.  Volunteering there each week has given me a new respect for people with enough compassion to serve this population with all their hearts.

This further supports my theory that these slips are most likely truly unintentional.

At any rate, it never hurts to be reminded of what not to say.

9 thoughts on “Top three things NOT to say to someone visiting their loved one in a nursing home

  1. I am so glad you posted this. I am in the medical field and have been on your end also. I felt both sides of the coin. I fully relate to these things being said. I am sorry for the upset that it causes. I think from the worker side we say things that I think are thoughtless and sometimes misunderstood, and also we usually love our people so much and know how much they ask for family or visitors even if someone had just been in. So its hard to see someone leave after what we feel has been a short visit. On the other side I know what it takes sometimes to even just walk through that door. Please keep posting I love how real and thought provoking they are, I will try to share this around so people can have a better understanding of the consequences of what we say. : ) PS I love the picture posted is that the outside of your mothers room? That is an awesome design idea!

    • Thanks for your note and I’m glad you liked this. I agree and really don’t think it’s intentional at all. I also really know how much most of the people at Mom’s place really care about her. It takes truly special people to do their jobs and most of them at Mom’s place have been there for 10+ years. I think I as a guilt-ridden daughter, I’m just extra sensitive about this.

  2. Great post. Unfortunately, there are people in the “helping professions” who do not have the gift for being truly helpful. Cancer patients and their friends and family also are hit with inappropriate comments and suggestions. There was the helpful nurse urging my cousin Gene to quit smoking. He had a brain tumor and two weeks to live. Priorities? My friend Lisa, in her mid-20s, was recovering from a mastectomy when a counselor came to her hospital room to help her cope. The first thing the counselor said: “Oh my God, you’re so young!” How helpful was that? Somebody needs to put posters in hospitals and nursing facilities reminding the staff: “If you can’t be helpful be quiet.”

  3. I hear you, but let me offer the other (possible) side. I could see myself saying, “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” because I’d be glad to see you, not because I’d be judging you. It depends, I guess, on how it’s said. I have a friend who works in this industry (sounds like a cold word, I know…, and it just wears on her… she says it’s so depressing, so just remember that the workers there are people too, and if they care about the people they, well, care for, then they are also going to be affected with the sadness of the situation. So they might say well-meaning things that offend, or they could be just having a sad/bad day too.

  4. Oh dear – I’ve heard those comments before and have also felt like giving someone a good uppercut. It’s so depressing and the guilt when you leave is overwhelming sometimes. I hope people who work in nursing homes read this post xxxx

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