Excerpt: “As Seniors we know our capabilities and energy are diminishing, but want to retain the right to limit ourselves when the time comes, and not have young people put those limitations on us, to make them feel better.”
I recently asked Dawn Schultz and several others to speak at the Aging in Place Business Round Table about how service providers can communicate effectively with senior citizens and their families. (Follow this link to see a summary of that panel presentation.)
I was so charmed and impressed by Dawn’s presentation that I asked if I could reproduce it for you here in its entirety. Dawn’s comments are below!
A note about Dawn: Dawn Schultz has been my hero for quite some time, but she was officially crowned a Local Hero by Home Instead Senior Care, especially for her energetic leadership at Charlottesville’s Senior Center. Click this link for an article in which you can read more about Dawn’s awesomeness!
From Dawn Schultz: How to Communicate Effectively with Seniors
“By the time they contact you, family members are often feeling stressed out having to care for a Senior, and the Senior hates that they now have to depend on the kids they birthed, diapered and taught how to be adults. So to have an outside friend of both the family and the Senior to act as a neutral but empathetic mediator is often far more important to your clients than the specific tasks you may be asked to perform.
The only way to communicate with Seniors is to be authentic. You can’t fake body language. Seniors will remember how you make them feel, though they will probably forget what exactly you said. So never ever talk down to them or talk over them to younger family members.
Until you reach old age, you have no idea what it is like. Inside every 70, 80 or 90 year old there is a 45 year old looking out of their crumbling body wondering what the hell happened. Why suddenly they have lost control of the body they had taken for granted for most of their lives.
And it is very hard for younger people looking at gray hair, a wrinkled face and maybe a slight stoop not to assume that we have always been that way. When I lived in Atlanta in my late 40s, I picked up my mail at a private mail box service. The lady who ran it I would suspect was in her 70s. She was your typical little old lady. And I dismissed her as irrelevant until one day we got talking and I discovered she had been one of only 1000 women nationwide who had been accepted for pilots training during World War II and had flown transport planes behind the lines for the fighting men. She showed me fascinating photographs and mementoes. So never judge an older person for what you see today. There is a good chance that at your age they were doing something at least as exciting as you are doing, perhaps more so.
A story to show how empathic connection and acceptance can change a person’s life. Bruce who had a car accident in his 20s which left him with one leg in a metal brace, and memory damage, joined the Senior Center 18 months ago. At first he carried a notepad at all times to write things down as his memory would not hold facts for more than a minute. But folks didn’t condescend to him or pity him, and today he manages the cafe cash register without help and remembers people’s names. The metal brace he has worn on his leg for the last 25 years will soon be replaced by something a lot lighter, and eventually he may not need a brace at all. And if you want to hear more about him, he will be honored as a community hero on newsplex channel 16 next Monday during the newscasts.
As Seniors we know our capabilities and energy are diminishing, but want to retain the right to limit ourselves when the time comes, and not have young people put those limitations on us, to make them feel better. Young people have no idea how expert older people are at living around failing eyesight or physical disability without being a danger to themselves or anybody else. But if you over-restrict a Senior, they will become stubborn and the stress of conflict with those they care about most, will make them more disabled, and more accident prone.
And now a story of how, even with the best of intentions, you can insult and demean a Senior. I was in Wholefoods on the day Obama came to town. I struck up a brief conversation with a lady, probably in her late 40s or early 50s, about the high price of organic cucumbers. She remarked that she usually shops at Cville Market where prices are better and the produce is excellent. I told her Wholefoods was convenient to where I live, and I don’t like the hassle of getting to Cville Market. End of conversation. I did the rest of my grocery shopping, and was just about to buy a loaf of bread in bakery, when suddenly there was this woman tapping me on the shoulder. “You know for the elderly, JAUNT will pick you up at your door and take you where ever you want to go. It enables you to go anywhere, which is great for the elderly when they don’t drive anymore. I told her gently that I still drive, and had just renewed my driving license. But she simply didn’t hear me, as she was busy trying to “help” this little old lady who she perceived me to be. She must have called me elderly half a dozen times, and each time I wanted to hit her, and by this time the guys in bakery who know me were trying very hard not to laugh. I finally got rid of her by agreeing to think about using JAUNT to make my “Elderly” life easier. So never jump to conclusions about older people based only on appearance.
Keys for communicating with seniors and their families:
1. Be authentic. Come to the Senior Center. Get to know a range of older people. When you are totally comfortable around Seniors, and treat each of us as the individuals we are, it will show in your body language.
2. Listen. I once attended a lecture for graduating young doctors, and the speaker said the worst mistake inexperienced doctors make is to diagnose before they have heard the patient out. What you do can be the difference between a Senior getting progressively more incapacitated, OR having their health improve and being happier. So take the time to listen.
3. Respect. 2 years ago I was looking for a speaker for our monthly All Things Digital program, and emailed the manager of Best Buy. I got no reply; so emailed again. Still nothing. So I printed out my unanswered emails, and hand delivered them to the store. In the store I was looked on with condescension by the sales people, and it was clear they felt that this little old lady could have no possible business there. Then Ray Sprouse, the Apple Consultant, visited the Senior Center and saw how misguided Best Buy was to not make Seniors welcome. Over the next months Ray pushed Best Buy into offering really good, respectful customer service to seniors. Now when I visit the store I see Senior Center members buying stuff, and members in their 80s say they now love visiting the store. We have gained respect of the biggest tech store in town, and Best Buy has gained a huge new market they didn’t even believe existed. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth among seniors to recommend your business to their friends if they have had a good experience with you and they know you respect them.
And technology is a huge asset for Seniors. The Internet can be a real godsend to housebound clients to bring the world & their family into their home when they can no longer get out to go to them. And there are a lot of remotely monitored devices available to keep a Senior safe in their own home even if they live alone.
Know someone who worries about their elderly parent in Charlottesville, Staunton, or Harrisonburg Virginia? Care is There Geriatric Care Management can help! Have them contact me, Elizabeth, for a free consultation: 434.326.5323ext 2 or Elizabeth@careisthere.com.
For more information about our services, and to read testimonials from our clients, visit our website. Also, view this short video about our care management services.
Elizabeth Swider, Certified Senior Advisor and Certified Aging in Place Specialist
President, Care is There Geriatric Care Management
Support for independent living and long distance caregiving; assisted living enhancement