This is our final installment on this month’s theme of “Got Problems? We solve them!” Last week I told a personal story about a “difficult” senior client and my experiences being her rookie caregiver. Gwen was shot in the head decades ago. The resulting paralysis threatened her health and created a need for daily in-home care. Her verbal outbursts and salty language suggests to some listeners that she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome or a similar brain disorder. That is not the case… her mind is still razor sharp, especial for an elderly person! Gwen simply has a short fuse and a long list of expletives that she spews at a drop of a hat.
TWO STEPS TO SUCCESSFUL CAREGIVING
I’m proud that we’ve been able to meet Gwen’s home care needs for over four years. HOW DO WE DO IT?? Well, there are two steps. #1 – Get to know people. #2 – Be a good matchmaker. We focused on step #1 in last week’s blog, so this week we’ll talk about step #2 – BE A GOOD MATCHMAKER
Four years ago Gwen helped me recognize that I had a special knack for dealing with folks that are often labeled “difficult.” Recently Gwen’s regular caregiver was unavailable, so we sent a substitute whom we thought would be a good match. He came from a white-collar background, like Gwen, and was polished and cerebral in demeanor. Unfortunately, we were wrong about the match and Larry (not his real name) came unglued after his shift with Gwen. He sent a scathing email to me, and my wife Carole, outlining in raw detail, every offense and act of disrespect Gwen dished out. He began: “NEVER, EVER, NEVERRRRRR EVERRRR AGAIN even consider sending me to drive, care for or have anything to do with or for Gwen. I was called a MOTHER F****R, A DUMB S**T, AND A POMPOUS B*****D, collectively at least 8 times, she did this in front of the medical staff ... She complained about getting wet, as if I have (sic) invented the rain, she is totally difficult getting her into and out of the car she likes to scream, and yell when getting in and out of the vehicle.”
WHAT A “BAD MATCH” LOOKS LIKE
Clearly, Larry and Gwen do not make a good match. I’m not trying to be Dr. Phil here, but I think I might know what went wrong. Larry can be a bit stiff sometimes and some folks may interpret his aloofness as an “air of superiority.” When Gwen senses any “airs” or phony-baloney in a person, it’s like a shark sensing a wounded seal in the water. She deliberately talks nasty to him to see if she can get a rise. She strikes, almost immediately, and Larry does not help his cause. He immediately takes offense rather than choosing to laugh it off.
CURSING AND ACTING OUT – NOT A RARITY
Perhaps some of you are reading this and objecting to our topic…or premise. You may be thinking “Why write about this rare unpleasant behavior…this is unusual language and behavior for seniors.” Sorry, but that assumption is WRONG! Senior folks, even ones that do not have bullets lodged in their brains (like Gwen), can drop their socially appropriate communication filters. Some of you are likely reading this and thinking to yourself. "THANK GOODNESS! I’M NOT ALONE…I THOUGHT MY DAD WAS THE ONLY ONE!"
TIPS FOR FAMILIES OF “SALTY SENIORS”
The moral of the story… families need to adjust to the fact that the intended message is not always contained in the words coming out of mom or dad’s mouth. There is usually another story being told. Frustration…fear…anger…general malaise or non-specific pain. Loss of power and independence is an especially common source of angst for many elders. In order to understand, you have to get close in and pay attention; help to breakdown the communication process until you get the real message. Think of it this way. When young children can’t find the words to express themselves, it seems perfectly normal for us to patiently help them. In the case of senior folks, it is up to us to adjust and adapt. There is a term for when folks stop being able to grab and use certain words. It’s call APHASIA… and it’s not the end of the world. It’s just an opportunity for us to learn how to help. The best we can do is reassure our loved ones that we understand or that we will keep working until we understand what they are trying to communicate to us. Stay calm, pay attention and adjust. You can do it.
NOTE: The tips offered above apply to many seniors. However, a deep emotional meaning is not always at the root of outbursts or swearing. Gruff or unpleasant people get old too. They don’t become sweet and cuddly just because they turned 80 years old. And some folks, like my friend Gwen, always swore like a sailor – even before her injury!
I hope this series of articles provoked some thought, offered some help or hope, or maybe made you smile once or twice. Have a great week…and give me a call if you want to chat.
All the best,
Ray Fitzgibbon, General Manager, SYNERGY HomeCare of Seattle