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Learning to Listen With Your Heart

GRAND magazine

Doctor Marion poses important questions for caregivers in an excerpt from her book "Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion’s 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One"

The single most difficult challenge you face as a caregiver could be managing communication with the person you're caring for, your extended family, other professionals involved in your elder's situation and, surprisingly, even with yourself. Honest, open, crystal clear communication should be your goal. Why? Every time the lines of communication are unclear or broken off, your ability to make smart decisions is hampered. You could have arguments with loved ones, expect the impossible from doctors, or cause your elder to become irritated by a situation you thought you had under control. Have the strength to implement a communication strategy that gets to the truth of your elder's situation. The simplest part of communication, as well as the hardest part, is listening.

Early in my career, I learned this lesson from one of my most vocal clients, who also happened to be an excellent listener. She had the ability to listen with her heart and soul to what was said. She would say that she also listened to what someone's body told her. When I asked her how she had become so skilled, she said, "We were given two eyes, two ears and one mouth. If I listen and observe twice as much as I talk, I'll be able to understand not just what people are saying but also what they truly mean." I always try to listen twice as often as I speak.

Communicate with your elder

Your communication efforts should begin with a one-on-one discussion with your elder to figure out what issues need to be addressed. Start by building trust. Your elder has to know that you understand his/her values, struggles and identity. My clients often ask me, "Why is my mother so nice to you? She hasn't been that nice to us in years." I think it's because I don't judge my clients. I don't arrive with baggage from the past or preconceived notions of who my client is. I know this is difficult to do, but you should try, both for your sake and your elder's. Also, try to find the humor in any situation. Believe me, your elder is full of humor and wisdom. You don't have your needs met for decades without learning how to laugh and how to get what you want.

Caregiving is a chance to embrace your elder emotionally and to work together to find answers and harmony. As you listen and observe, focus on the activities of daily living, or ADLs. These are the activities of daily living that a senior encounters. Your elder will require assistance with some ADLs, whereas other ADLs might still be easily managed. The sum of your elder's ability to manage ADLs will give you a clear picture of his/her real condition. Also, look closely for signs that your elder exhibits while mentally retrieving information. Each person has a unique way of retrieving details, and usually his/her eyes will seek out the same spot while doing it. But if people lie or are not fully functional on a mental level, they often look elsewhere to retrieve the answer. Also, their cheeks flush, and their palms get sweaty. Be aware of these visual signals so that you can pick up on your elder's mental ability. Focusing on what still "works" can go a long way toward keeping your elder a vital part of the family and community.

Doctor Marion Somers is a consultant, lecturer and experienced geriatric care manager. Her Web site, www.doctormarion.com, provides direct support for anyone involved with caring for an aging parent or loved one. E-mail her at doctormarion@doctormarion.com.

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