Chapter 3: Your Mother's Room and Her Property

Most nursing home resident rooms are very plain.  They often have only the legal minimum of furnishings:  a bed, a night stand, a closet or dresser, a window covering, a call button, a reading lamp, a water pitcher and a cup.  There is supposed to be a “comfortable” chair for each resident in the room, a requirement often ignored.  If your mother shares a room, there must be a privacy curtain she can pull when she wants, and which the staff is required to use to hide her completely from view when she is getting any kind of treatment.


1.  Make your mother’s new living quarters as comfortable and reassuring as possible. 

Check with the facility administrator about what kinds of furniture your mother can bring with her to make her feel more like she is at home.  She should be allowed to have any items that are not so large as to get in the way of the staff or her roommate, and don’t create a hazard for other residents.

Consider bringing: 

  • family pictures.  If your mother has a form of dementia which causes her to regress into the past, bring pictures from that earlier time: for example, pictures of her children as children, rather than adults.  Putting copies of these pictures on her door, or a picture of herself as a young woman, may help her orient herself and find her room.  Having her name on the door will not help your mother find her room, if she can no longer read;
  • living things: plants, fish, a bird.  Don’t bring plants or animals unless your mother or a regular visitor will be able to care for them.  Also, you should not bring any plant or animal which endangers other residents: no plants with poisonous leaves if there are confused residents on thefloor who eat green leaves, no bird in a cage into which a resident can stick her fingers and get pecked, no aquarium which can be pulled over onto another resident.  A bird cannot be allowed to fly freely in the facility, or even be allowed the freedom of your mother’s room, if it disturbs or imposes on a roommate;
  • special furniture your mother can use, such as a reclining chair or rocking chair, a special quilt or comforter;
  • small appliances such as a radio or tape player, a small refrigerator, a microwave or an automatic coffee pot (for your mother’s use, or for her visitors to use.)  If there is not already one in the room, you might consider bringing in a television and VCR or DVD player.  Check with the administrator or the building custodian to make sure the room wiring can handle any electrical items you want to bring.  The nursing home may refuse to allow items your mother cannot use safely, or which endanger other residents.  A coffee maker would not be allowable if it were accessible to a confused roommate who could burn herself, if your mother was likely to forget to turn it off, or if it was illegal because of safety or building codes.  Similarly, a refrigerator which cannot be locked would not be possible if your mother wants it to store sugary snacks, and it waaccessible to a confused diabetic roommate;
  • a chest or a trunk that can be locked.  Illinois nursing homes are not required to provide locked storage in a resident’s room.  They are required to provide secure storage to which a resident has daily access.  This usually means that items are kept in the administrator’s office: not exactly convenient if your mother wants to put on her watch, or listen to a CD.  Get a receipt for any item you put in the nursing home’s storage; 

Caution: You must to be realistic about bringing in valuable personal property.  In some nursing homes, residents’ electronic appliances or equipment have a shelf life of no more than half a day before they disappear.  In general, no electric item should be brought in unless it can be locked up, bolted down, tied with a cable,  or otherwise secured from theft.  Smaller items such as tapes or DVD’s should never be left in your mother's room unless they are secured in a locked drawer or other storage to which only she (if she is able to use a lock) and you have access.


2.  If she can use it, make sure your mother has a telephone.

If the facility does not provide bedside phones, but there is a phone jack in the room, consider paying for a bedside phone or cell phone yourself.  (If a cell phone, there should be a way for your mother to lock it away when she is not using it.)  

Although a nursing home is required to provide phones that residents can use in private, and which are adapted to the abilities of persons with various disabilities, this does not mean bedside phones.  In many facilities the requirement is ignored altogether; residents in some older nursing homes have only a hallway pay phone, with considerable background noise and no privacy.  Other nursing homes provide cell phones, which are not always available when residents want them, and which some residents may not be able to use.

To make sure that your mother’s phone is not used by everyone in the facility to make long distance phone calls to Fiji, you can:

  • put a lock on it to which only your mother (if she is able) and the family have keys;
  • have it programmed with an access code known only to your mother and your family;
  • program the phone so it can receive phone calls, but make either only local calls or no calls out at all;
  • program the phone so it can only call pre-set numbers (those of various family members and friends) on speed dial. 

If your mother cannot use a regular phone, you can ask the facility occupational therapist about finding a phone adapted to her abilities.  She may need a speaker phone, or one with large buttons that are easily pressed.  If she is using speed-dial buttons, you may want to put a photograph of the person next to his or her corresponding button.  

If your mother cannot make a phone call by herself, tell the staff when you are available to talk, so they can dial the phone for her.  You can ask them to schedule calling you at a regular time, or limit her calling to a particular time, if she wants to talk to you then.

A bedside phone is an excellent item to ask an out-of-state relative who cannot visit regularly, to pay for. 


3.  Using a camera.

Some advocates for nursing home residents believe that families should install a camera with a tamper-proof taping mechanism facing a resident’s bed, to constantly record what is happening with and to her.  You cannot legally record sound in this way without the consent of everybody who is being taped (which makes it impossible, since you cannot know whose voice could be recorded.) 

Families have varying reactions to the idea of using a camera.  Some welcome it as a record (or preventor) of abuse.  (We think a tape is more likely to show neglect than abuse: that is, it is more likely to show residents getting little or no care for long periods of time.)  Other families reject the idea of taping because it destroys the resident’s privacy, and alienates the staff.  Nursing home staff generally do not welcome the idea of a camera, which may or may not matter to you or your mother.  

There may be a question about doing this legally in Illinois, even with your mother’s permission.  You should check with a lawyer before installing a camera.


4.  Take steps to prevent or reduce losing property

  • Label personal belongings.

It is not only attractive electronic items which tend to disappear in nursing homes.  In some facilities, clothing and other personal items also disappear.  This is a particular problem in homes where residents share a closet, since they cannot be locked.  Dentures, glasses and hearing aids may be lost accidentally or through carelessness.

To minimize the risk of loss, all of your mother’s clothing, including belts, shoes and slippers, should be labeled with her name in permanent ink.  Use an engraving pen for glasses, radio and television.  (You may be able to borrow an engraving pen from the local police department or from Crime Stoppers.)  Have her dentist engrave your mother’s dentures with her name or initials.  Do not label items with your mother’s room number in the nursing home: if she changes rooms, you will have to relabel everything.

If you choose to have the facility do her laundry, use large mesh bags (labeled with your mother’s name and room number) to make it less likely that items will be separated and lost.  Talk to the administrator and the laundry staff to make sure they leave your mother’s laundry in these bags when it is washed and dried.

Residents’ personal possessions, including eyeglasses and dentures, are often lost because they are put on food trays and then thrown out with the remains of a meal, or put on a night stand or sink and knocked into a wastebasket.  An easy issue for families to talk to the administrator about as a group, is the need for the staff who handle food trays to check them before they clear them, and for the facility to use clear plastic trash bags which the housekeeping staff check for valuables as the trash bags are collected and before they are thrown out.

  • Make a list of all the items you bring to the nursing home, and take pictures of them. 

What should be on the list?  If it will upset you or your mother to find it is missing, list it.  Make a copy for your family.  Keep the list in your mother’s room.  Update it whenever you buy anything, anybody brings something, or somebody takes something (including to be fixed or laundered.)  If the nursing home has a sign-in-and-out list posted in your room for laundry, use it. 

  • Keep items locked away when possible.

If she is physically and mentally able, your mother should get in the habit of putting away all items with sentimental or financial value whenever she leaves her room.  She should keep the key to any lock where it is easy for her to find: maybe on a necklace or a bracelet she always wears.  If your mother cannot use a standard key and lock or combination lock, ask the facility occupational therapist for suggestions about locking devices adapted to meet her needs. 

  • Report lost items.

Make sure you know who is the facility’s lost-and-found coordinator.  Immediately report any missing items to this person.  Nursing home staff are required to call 911 whenever a resident has been the victim of a crime, including theft.  If the staff does not call the police, and you believe it is appropriate, call them yourself.  Remember: the longer you wait to call the police, the less likely they can help you.  If the nursing home staff does not log a missing item and start a search, talk to the administrator immediately. 

  • Consider getting insurance.

Check your family’s homeowner’s insurance to see if coverage can be extended to cover your mother’s  property during a nursing home stay, just as many policies will cover a college student’s property in a college dorm.  If you can, do it.