A visit and a Christmas sweet could make the day of a nursing home patient, or it could cause sickness or coma.

Laurel Nebeker, a certified social worker at a local care center, said visits always thrill patients, but the candies, cookies or cake some church groups or clubs offer could hurt certain patients."Patients with diabetes or certain other conditions aren't allowed to eat some foods," she said. "Year-round, but especially at Christmas, people come and hand out fudge or cookies to their relatives or to everyone. Church groups or clubs will make huge batches of fudge and give some to everyone without asking if patients are on a low-salt diet or have a potassium imbalance or diabetes. Even some relatives aren't aware of dietary restrictions on their loved ones."

One reason people put family members in nursing homes is to control diets for better health, she said.

There are many reasons a patient won't just say no.

"Many patients are mentally retarded, forgetful or just polite, and they take the food and eat it. In some patients, it could throw their blood chemistry way off, or their electrolytes could get thrown out of whack. A diabetic could get very ill or go into a coma."

Nebeker said she works with one mentally retarded and diabetic patient who gets into sweets all the time.

"It's almost a full-time job trying to track down where she gets the candy, and she thinks we are the meanest people in the world, but we just want to keep her blood sugar level stable. Candy is dangerous for her; she just doesn't have the judgment to know that."

Nebeker said most people in health care facilities can enjoy sweets. She said she hopes people will keep visiting and bringing treats but will ask a nurse which few patients are on restricted diets before passing the candy out.

To many patients, a Christmas carol or a visit would seem like a better treat anyway, she added.

"People in homes get very lonely during the holidays. Not only do they miss their families more than usual, but they see the hubbub and remember activities they used to do during the holidays that they can't do anymore. Holidays can magnify some people's feelings of loneliness and helplessness.

"And having no visitors makes it much worse."

With up to 100 people in each facility, a private visit with a friend or interested stranger can really lift a patient's spirits, she said.

"These people thrive on visits; visits are great. I don't want scare anyone off, I just want them to be cautious about the few people who have restricted diets. Just talk to the charge nurse first."