I still have fond memories of my grandfather, who must have been at least 70 years old at the time, announcing every afternoon that he was heading down to the local nursing home to “call bingo for the old folks.”
The irony might have been lost on Grandpa that he was already more advanced in years than some of the “old folks” he was going to visit. It didn’t matter. He was mobile, he was able, and he was ready to serve.
Studies suggest that as many as 60 percent of nursing home residents do not have regular visitors. Some of them are what have been termed “elder orphans” — men and women who have no surviving spouse or family members to visit them at the facility.
For these precious souls, life in a nursing home can be a sad, lonely existence. Their basic needs are being met — food, shelter, medical care, and so on — but their thirst for love and fellowship goes unquenched.
If you and your family have a burden for those who are suffering in this way, you might consider visiting a nursing home near you and building relationships with some of the residents there. Even if you don’t have a relative living in a facility, many nursing homes have communal areas where residents can meet with visitors during the day.
Do a little research first to make sure you’re up to speed on the do’s and don’ts of visiting a nursing home, and then consider these four ways you might be able to help a lonely resident feel noticed, valued and loved:
This is where Grandpa excelled. He went to the nursing home every afternoon and called numbers for the daily bingo game. Of course, he wasn’t just calling numbers. He was engaging and laughing with the residents and making them feel important. Don’t feel like you have to organize the games yourself. Many facilities have planned daily activities and the necessary materials, but they often need volunteers to facilitate them! Inquire with the facility’s management about ways you might get involved with activities they already have on the calendar.
My wife used to paint fingernails for residents of a senior center in her hometown. The ladies were always delighted when she showed up to add some color to their lives! Don’t expect to just march into a random nursing home and start painting fingernails, of course. That’s a recipe for a lawsuit, or at least some strange looks. However, if you inquire with the management first, you’re likely to get an enthusiastic response. Just be sure to follow the facility’s protocols.
We’ve already discussed the ministry of music in nursing homes, but it’s worth noting again. Familiar songs and hymns have a way of lifting even the heaviest of hearts. If you’ve got skills on the guitar or piano, or if you’re brave enough to lead songs a cappella, consider using those talents at a local nursing home. Inquire with the facility about specific times and settings that might work best for group singing.
Depending on the age, demographics and abilities of the residents in your facility, you might consider establishing an ongoing book club. If not everyone is up for reading on their own and joining in a group discussion, you could read out loud in front of the group or even one-on-one with specific residents. Be sensitive about diving into the Bible or a Christian devotional unless it’s obvious that everyone in your group is open to it. Otherwise, consider other genres like poetry, U.S. history, presidential biographies, literary classics and other titles that will likely appeal to members of “the greatest generation.”
However you choose to invest in the lives of nursing home residents, know that your time and attention are the most valuable gifts you can give. It’s not just about playing games, painting nails, singing or reading. It’s about letting often overlooked and neglected men and women know that they are loved, that they are important, and that they matter.
As the psalmist implored the Lord, many nursing home residents are saying, “Do no cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone” (Psalm 71:9, NIV).
With the donation of your time and the investment of some creativity, you could be the answer to their prayers.