So often it’s the case that as we watch a family member age or slip into new stages of declining health, we notice they also begin to shut down a little and withdraw. Someone who once was Mr. Confident or Ms. Self-Assured is now sitting towards the back of the classroom, figuratively speaking.
Chances are that this is happening because they themselves are aware of the changes going on – the misuse of words, forgetting someone’s name, confusion around details. So, rather than raise their hand and blurt out the wrong answer, they have stepped back to blend in a little less obviously.
While we can’t stop the changes that are inevitable with aging, there are things that you can do to help the person feel more comfortable and eventually open up without fear of judgment.
The first step to set the tone for positive interaction is through listening. Keep in mind that the language and words that are used are often unimportant when listening. If you get tangled up in the words being used incorrectly or the inappropriate names and dates, you will find yourself tripping over your own shoelaces as well. Instead, listen for the emotions and feelings behind the words. Listen with your eyes open for expressions, for body language, for gestures. Listening without interruption tells someone that you value them.
Once when a resident was going out for an appointment, she was terribly upset as she sat on the bus waiting to leave. I was asked to intervene, so that we could help her along. When I approached her and asked what was going on, she proceeded to tell me that she had been “woken up and put on the bus” with no explanation of where she was going. When someone had tried to inform her about the doctor’s appointment, she proclaimed that “no one ever told me about any appointment” and she was very angry about her disturbed sleep. (Her statements were inaccurate but nonetheless, this was her truth at the time, due to short term memory loss).
The second step is validating the emotions the person is experiencing. As you notice what the feelings are behind a story or behind a scenario – name them. By naming it and validating your family member, they feel heard and valued.
After the resident on the bus had vented and let off some steam, I began to name the emotions I was seeing and hearing: “You sound so frustrated.” “I don’t like it when someone wakes me up, it makes me angry.” “Do you feel like you didn’t have a choice?” Through this process she learned (at least for the moment) that it was safe to express herself – regardless of being right or wrong.
These two simple steps – listening without interruption and validating feelings – took this resident to a different place. She calmed down, felt heard and valued, and our relationship began to grow from that moment.
Meaningful relationships are possible at all times. It’s my hope for you that you will continue to see the possibilities in your relationships with loved ones, and use these techniques to connect and have meaningful interactions.