Make the most of visits to older adults over the holidays

Contact Clifton Barber, 608-890-3283,

Madison, Wis.–Nearly 40 million people in the United States are age 65 or older. About four percent of older adults live in nursing homes–a rate that rises to 17 percent for those older than 85. For elderly in care facilities, a visit from family and friends during the holidays can make life better, according to Clifton Barber, Extension specialist in aging and associate professor in the UW-Madison Dept. of Human Development and Family Studies.

Barber is part of a team of Extension Family Living colleagues around the state who are working to help Wisconsin communities address issues related to an aging population. He offers some suggestions below for making the most of holiday visits to elderly friends and relatives who are in a hospital or nursing home.

–Check the facility’s visiting hours, and consider calling ahead to plan your visit. “Not only will you ensure that you’ll have enough time to visit with your loved one without interfering with medical treatments or other activities, but you will also give them time to anticipate and look forward to your visit,” says Barber.

–If you are planning to see someone in specialized care, call ahead to make sure you understand visiting hours and regulations: they may differ from those in the rest of the facility.

–Bring your children. “Children add a special kind of cheer to nursing homes and hospitals, so certainly bring them along,” says Barber. But be sure to check with the facility first to make sure children are allowed and under what conditions. Barber suggests preparing children for the visit by explaining what they might see and answering their questions. If your child is sick or not feeling well, don’t bring them along for the visit.

–Share the gift of humor. Tell your friend or relative funny stories, read a humorous book aloud or watch a comedy video together.

–Praise the resident’s effort to be self-sufficient and encourage activity or exercise. Also encourage them to take an interest in the activities of the staff and other residents.

–Check with staff before bringing food. If you do bring food, choose appropriate and nutritious snacks.

–Take cues from the person you’re visiting about how long to stay. If you leave too early, you may not hear of concerns or the visit may be forgotten. If the visit is too long, the resident may become tired. Limit the number of people who are visiting at one time. Large numbers may increase the person’s confusion or anxiety.

–Strive to be consistent about when you visit. If possible, allow the resident to have input in the schedule.

–Touch has a tremendous impact on the physical and emotional need to feel connected to others. Hug, hold hands, or put your arm around the person.

–If possible, plan a day out of the nursing home suited to the resident’s interests, health and strength, and your ability to handle the resident.


Your visit is the best gift you can give someone in a care facility. But if you want to bring a gift, consider the following: a large colorful calendar to keep a sense of time; music from the “old days”; family or old community scrapbooks; personal toiletries, tissues or decorative tissue holder; books or magazines in large print; a magazine holder; an airtight container filled with dried or fresh fruit, cookies, or a variety of teas and coffee; flowers or a new plant; stamps, stationary, and cards with pre-addressed envelopes; a gift certificate to the hair salon; phone or cable television hook-ups; socks or slippers with non-skid surfaces or specialized clothing; a large-face or talking clock; a radio; a magnifying glass and craft supplies are also appropriate gifts. The nursing home staff may have suggestions on gifts as well.

If you have a cold or the flu, stay home. Nursing home residents and hospital patients can be at higher risk for infection. Therefore, if you aren’t feeling well, a phone call is a better way to let them know you care; if possible, you can set up a later time to visit when you are well.

Holiday visitors can raise the spirits of nursing home residents and hospital patients, and these tips will help everyone enjoy safe and healthy visits.

To learn more about issues related to aging and caregiving, contact your family living educator at your local county UW-Extension office. Contact information is available at


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