Dear Carol: My 95-year-old dad was doing well up until a stroke last year left him incapacitated enough to need nursing home care. This happened before COVID-19, so we were fortunate to get him settled. At that time, my biggest problem was what to talk about during long visits. His brain is sharp, but our conversation lagged quickly.
Fast forward through months of video check-ins. With occasional help from the staff, Dad has done well with the required technology, but the problem of what to talk about persists, maybe even to a greater degree since we’re on video. Do you have any suggestions? — PE.
Dear PE: Most of us who’ve spent hours with someone in assisted living or a nursing home understand your dilemma. You want to be present for your dad, but neither of you enjoys just sitting there with nothing to say or do. Now, as you mentioned, most people in your situation are using video, which adds another layer of awkwardness.
One suggestion is to ask your dad to tell you about different events during his childhood, or achievements that he was proud of during his working years. These stories should stimulate some follow-up questions. You can also share photo albums from the past for a similar result. The idea is to try to think about what would interest him and go from there.
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Additionally, technology once again is coming to the rescue for caregivers, so in keeping with some of my recent columns that highlighted useful online services for older adults and/or their caregivers, I’ll offer these suggestions.
StoryWorth: Once a week, StoryWorth would email a question to your dad that he could answer on his own. His stories would then be collected by the service and at the end of a year, they'd be bound into a book to use as a keepsake. This could be a shared project if as he works on these questions he tells you about his latest entry, which could then serve as a springboard for conversation while you visit; https://welcome.storyworth.com/.
Vita Life Story: VitaLifeStory.com is just one example of a service that can provide you with conversation guides. Among other services, this company offers a kit using visual cards to stimulate stories which can be recorded if you’d like; https://vitalifestory.com/storytime-cards.
Meema Stories: Meema Stories are curated, highly interactive multimedia resources for care-companions to use together. The creator told me that these stories are intended to foster reflection, reminiscence and conversation, and they work well during video chats like you are having with your dad.
Dabblesack: I’ve mentioned Dabblesack before in conjunction with dementia care, but this site also offers entertainment ideas for others. A history buff game that you and your dad could do together came to mind. There are many choices, of course; https://dabblesack.com/.
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.