Here is a typical conversation between an activity staff member and an adult child of a resident in a long-term care home:

Child: Did my dad go to bingo last week?
Staff: No, he wasn’t interested.
Child: Really? Did you ask him?
Staff: Yes. He says he doesn’t like bingo. I’ve asked him to join us many times.
Child: You should just take him to bingo. Make him go. Just bring him a few times and he’ll probably love it.

It can be difficult for activity staff in long-term care homes to make residents and their adult children happy; the family members often have conflicting views on what constitutes “fun.” Nursing homes usually offer a variety of activities that are designed to counteract boredom and create a social setting for residents to meet other residents. To adult children it would seem only logical that their parents should attend the activities in order to be happier in their living situations. Yet many residents are not interested in activities. It can take months for some people to try bingo or enjoy an art project. Why is that?

When a person moves into a long-term care home, they take a while to adapt to their new surroundings and the people in it. Even people with dementia are often aware that there has been a change and it takes time to adjust. Some people go through a period of mourning for the life they have left behind and the autonomy they have lost. Many have to come to terms with the fact that aging or illness has brought them to this point in their lives and they do not like it. The adjustment period can take a couple of days to a few years; some never can make the mental or emotional transition. For residents who are struggling with any of these issues, bingo is not a priority. A sing-along or trivia hour will not fix what is bothering them. Activity staff need to respect the feelings of the residents while continuing to encourage participation. They should not force someone to engage in an activity that is not of interest to that individual. The seemingly laissez-faire attitude of staff can frustrate adult children but the tolerant approach is correct.

Life has many interesting turns. Role reversal wherein the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent is one of those turns. The change starts out gradually. The young adult child shares his knowledge about the latest technology gadget. The adult child lectures the parent on diet and medical information. Eventually the parent trusts the child to make major medical decisions on her behalf. The adult child interfaces with doctors and long-term care staff to inquire about the parent’s progress, mirroring the days when the parent questioned the child’s teacher about behavioral and academic matters in elementary school. In spite of the similarities between these two bookends of life, the fact is that the parent has not really become the child. The parent is still an adult who has the need for respect and dignity that one would afford any other adult. The parent is not a child who must be told, “Now you will go to bingo even if you don’t like it. Because I said so.” The parent is an aging adult maneuvering through a difficult phase of life. The remedies to what ails them is not likely going to be healed with the same measures we would apply to small children. It is important to remember that you are not the parent of your parent; you are the ally and advocate during the end of your parent’s life.

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