It's helpful to have a main point of contact during the day's various shifts. You should feel like you can call at any time, but Nace observes that it's good to know up front what the best times are for getting general updates. And don't settle for less than you need to know. If you don't get an answer, head up the chain of command to a unit supervisor, assistant director, or director.
What to inspect
Getting a feel on your own for the overall environment goes a long way, says Audrey Chun, associate professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Are common areas, rooms, and residents' clothes clean? What about lighting and temperature? These are especially important to older adults, says Poer. Does the room feel homelike? If you send cards, are they hanging on a bulletin board in the room?
If cards and drawings are up and Mom couldn't put them up herself, that's a great sign. "It means the staff took the time to do it for the resident," Nace says. "The staff cared enough to do this."
Look around. Do you see any safety hazards—a hanging TV that isn't strapped down or blocked exits? What about bruises, such as on the upper arms where staff may have handled Dad too roughly? Watch the staff—are they affectionate, genuine, and helpful?
Use your nose. Are there odors in the hallways and rooms? "Yes, bowel movements happen—this is a long-established fact of life—but it should not be the thing that greets you every time you are in the hall," says Nace.
Listen. Do you hear birds, music, laughter? Or do you hear creaky floors and clanging pipes? Constant small annoyances can affect a person's mood and eventually her day-to-day demeanor.
How often to check in—and what to do if you can't
Some homes have a "care conference" shortly after admission and then quarterly to give you and your loved one a regular time to talk with staff, says Nace. But stopping by on various days and at various times is smart. You can ensure Mom or Dad isn't "overmedicated or spending time sitting in front of the TV," says Messinger-Rapport. When you do check in, swing by the nurses' station to signal to the staff that you're actively involved in Dad's care.
If distance keeps you apart, staff might be able to send you photos or videos of Dad or set up a videoconference with Dad and his caregivers. If you're abroad, staff might be able to print out an email for Mom if she doesn't have a computer, Nace says.
Better still, says Poer, "having someone on the ground to be your eyes and ears can be very useful." Enlist a local family member or close friend. Or consider a case manager or ombudsperson to advocate for you and Mom.
What the staff needs from you
Make sure the home's staff has a number where they can receive a prompt response if necessary. And while staff has a professional responsibility, your appreciation—particularly if someone worked with you to resolve a concern, and even if it meant you had to compromise—will go far. "Be respectful of the staff and their time; their job is very demanding," Poer says.
Let the nurses and other caregivers into your and your loved one's lives by sharing personality quirks, interests, preferences. But above all, stay optimistic about Dad's future and his ability to accept and adjust to his new life. Flycasting for bass on the Susquehanna River, Nace's dad's longtime passion, faded into a treasured memory after he moved into a nursing home, traded in for newfound pastimes: baking and painting.