Physical distancing measures are preventing in person visits, but that doesn't mean you can't provide care.
Posted in , May 5, 2020
Visits with my mother prior to the Coronavirus pandemic were simple. Whenever I dropped by Mom’s memory care facility, I could take her to the communal dining room for lunch. Often my sisters would join us. Some days Mom would barely communicate during the meal but that was okay. She would smile and nod her head as we chatted and took turns feeding her, obviously enjoying listening to us. Afterwards we could wheel her down the hall to watch a TV show, pamper her with a soothing hand massage, or take her outside for some fresh air.
Because of Covid-19, I am no longer able to visit Mom. When April, a member of Mom’s nursing staff, suggested I start visiting Mom through FaceTime, I decided to give it a try. It was a great idea, but it turned out to be more challenging than I imagined.
The first step was easy. Turns out, I already had the FaceTime app on my iPad. I’m gadget-challenged so I didn’t know I had it until April told me. What was challenging was trying to communicate with Mom through a screen. April would initiate the call and then leave us to chat while she cleaned Mom’s room or brushed her hair. The first few visits consisted of me watching Mom while her attention was focused on April’s movements. I spent most of the time saying, “Mom? Can you see me? I’m over here, Mom.” To make it worse, due to social distancing, my sisters weren’t there with me to fill in the gaps in conversation.
April encouraged me to talk as long as I wanted, but both the awkward silences and the lack of attention on Mom’s part discouraged me from spending much time chatting. There was only so many times that I could tell her that she looked pretty or discuss the weather. But when I ended the visit after just a few minutes, I felt guilty. Should I have spent more time with Mom even though she didn’t seem to be enjoying it? Would April think I was a terrible daughter for ending the visit too quickly?
Video chat visits are new territory for most caregivers, but they're essential for maintaining relationship while physically distancing. Here are a few simple tips I've used to make our video chats more pleasurable for both of us.
The first thing that made a big difference to the quality of my virtual visits with Mom was including my sisters. Not only did I need the extra help in keeping the conversation flowing, but also I hadn’t seen my sisters for weeks and wanted the chance to talk all together. Through some internet searching, I found out that FaceTime has a group feature. There are also group functions on Zoom and Google Hangout. With more than one person on the call, it became much easier to keep conversation flowing and hold Mom's attention.
Now that we could all connect during the same call, we ran into another challenge. When April, or anybody for that matter, was physically in the room during the visit, Mom’s gaze would follow her movement and she would completely ignore us. We talked through this problem with April and experimented with her leaving the room during our calls. When Mom didn't have another visual distraction, it was much easier to converse with her and hold her attention. Plus, it allowed April time to assist another resident during our visits.
It may sound silly, but one thing that's improved my quality of visits with Mom is to get ready as if I was physically going to get her. Why? The first time I glimpsed my face onscreen while video chatting with Mom, I was horrified. I hadn’t worn makeup for weeks and barely took the time to brush my hair. Comparing Mom's freshly washed hair and color-coordinated outfit to my comfy pajamas and tangled hair was a wake up call.
The shock of seeing my physical state distracted me from checking in on Mom. Taking just a few minutes to straighten my hair and put on fresh clothes helps keep me focused on her, and makes me feel my best when we're talking.
Of course, we all wish we could visit our loved ones in person. Instead of dwelling on what I can't do because of stay-at-home orders, I've decided to dwell on what I can do, especially things that were impossible during a physical visit.
For example, Mom has been wheelchair bound for several years and has been unable to visit our homes or venture outside the grounds of her memory care facility. Video chats give my sisters and I the opportunity to give Mom a virtual tour of our homes. We've shown her keepsakes and framed photographs that were too bulky to take to her facility. We've introduced her to our pets. We've even taken her into our backyards and shown her our gardens and landscaping. Anything we could think of that might prompt a memory or a smile.
What has helped me most of all is to be grateful. Even though I can't visit Mom, I'm blessed to live in a time with technology that allows me to see her. Every day, I remind myself of how thankful I am that I can see she is well cared for and that I get the chance to remind her I love her.