One of the skills that home caregivers develop is that of listening. In bed you keep your ears primed for that cough in the middle of the night. When washing dishes, you learn to recognize a faint call even when the water is running. Even if you’re at your computer trying to finish that job you took home from work, you still manage to hear a little tell-tale noise that makes you stop to see if Mom has stumbled while getting up from the couch.
However, sometimes you can listen like nobody’s business without really hearing, and that can create problems for the person for whom you’re caring.
Everyone wants to be heard
Those who are recipients of a home caregiver’s attention can react to that care in many different ways. Hopefully, those whom you care for are appreciative of the many sacrifices that you make for them, but even the most grateful can still feel other things, including resentment, frustration, or anger. Those feelings can come out at different times and in different ways.
For example, maybe Dad has been putting up a fight about taking his new pills. You’ve heard him say that he doesn’t want to take them and have maybe assumed that it has to do with the fact that he has a hard time swallowing pills. However, maybe he’s trying to tell you something else. If it’s something about side effects (“That darn medicine makes me feel sick!”), you’re probably hearing that, but if all he says is “I just don’t want to,” you may need to do some heavier listening, and you may need to encourage Dad to tell you more.
Often, a senior just wants to know that he is being heard, that his opinions and feelings count. True, some of us (young and old) can just be stubborn. There are also times when making themselves heard makes it easier for seniors to do something they don’t want to; even if they continue to complain, they may be more compliant about taking their medicine or visiting the doctor or doing whatever it is that bothers them after they have expressed their feelings.
Tips for improving your listening skills and becoming an even better caregiver:
1. Realize that listening takes time and concentration. When you’re rushing around and doing ten things at once (which caregivers do regularly), it’s hard to concentrate and really give attention to what another person is saying. If you can’t stop and really focus on what your loved one is saying, ask him or her to wait a few minutes because you really want to be able to listen.
2. Look at your loved one as he or she talks and, when possible, make eye contact. Let him or her see that you are actively paying attention.
3. If something you’re being told is unclear, explain that and ask for a clearer explanation. However, understand that some older people, especially those with dementia, may be sensitive to this question or may be unable to clarify. If that is the case, accept the situation.
4. After your loved one has finished talking, repeat what you were told, in case he or she may not have explained the issue clearly or in case you are misinterpreting something that was said.
5. After the conversation is over, find some time to think about what was said and examine your reaction. Was something said that, after reflection, you might be able to do something to change? Is there something you can take away from the conversation?
Listening and really hearing can be hard work. However, in the process you may gain valuable information that can help you and your loved one. You may also strengthen your bond through the sharing process.