The heart of connecting with the elderly is the senses

Published 12:10 am Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reaching out to elderly shut-ins requires special planning to make visits meaningful. Regular visits are such a gift. The attention of another person is a powerful antidote to loneliness. We all gain by giving a bit of time to someone else. But many people have said the following: “So, what can I do with him? He is so senile.” “How can I communicate? She is too deaf to be able to hear anything.”

We can appeal to many senses, and just take a bit of thinking and planning before visiting. How about carrying along ways to refresh five of the senses – reminders of taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight?  This doesn’t mean you have to carry a home-baked apple pie oozing fragrant juices, but on the way, think of things in your life or past and the lives of those you’re visiting so you can stimulate memories and conversations about pleasurable sensations.

If I’m prepared to reach to these senses, perhaps I can tickle the sense of humor and generate a sense of being cared for, too. So, what have I heard from visitors?


Martha volunteers, “I shamelessly make up stories about needing to plan a meal and ask for favorite dishes to include and even how to make them if I am visiting a long-time cook.”

Many elders grieve the loss of their sense of taste. But we can still talk about how good sausage sandwiches used to taste at the Grange Fair and what our favorite ice cream treat was or is.


Barbara often brings a few fragrant flowers or a citrus-scented handkerchief to talk about and sniff.

“We can reminisce about wood shavings or lilacs or other things like what made home smell like home.”


I hold hands, brush folks’ hair and massage wrists, fingers, temples and ears with good-smelling lotion.  This increases almost everyone’s sense of contact and touch.

Maybe if half of us promised ourselves to spend one hour once a month with two elder neighbors in practical or social visits, we would save a lot of heartache from loneliness.

If you have other questions about or suggestions for great ways to be with our shut-ins, share them at the Alzheimer’s Walk and Education Fair from 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 15 at the Redmen’s Lodge on East Third Street in Washington, or send them to me in care of the editor at the Washington Daily News, 217 N. Market St., Washington 27889.

Let’s spread good ideas and good visits around.

Peggy Cohn is a retired geriatric-care manager with a background in public-health nursing and degrees in family studies and aging. The stories are drawn from local caregivers of folks with Alzheimer’s disease. All caregivers and their families are anonymous to protect their privacy and dignity.