Roseanne Cash describes sitting at the grave of her father Johnny Cash, and writing a song, “God is in the Roses.”
She wrote “I love you like a brother, a father and a son. . .” These words describe the changing roles we all will play in relationships as we and those we love age. We become our parent’s parent. We become our children’s child. This can be painful for everyone, another layer of necessary loss.
As roles change, our way of speaking may change too.
If a parent (or spouse or friend) loses memory, we may be tempted to speak to him/her as to a child. What effect does that have on the person? Does he react negatively? It’s important to appreciate that as older adults depend more on others, they may become more accepting of the treatment they receive, even though inside, they may be offended, or even outraged.
Once we begin providing care to others, we may act the parent. More often than not role reversal takes place: the child becomes the parent and vice versa. Whatever the transition, it’s important to remember that we’re speaking to an adult. It’s important to respect his dignity – and guard our own.
These are challenging situations. We want to do the right thing. But we often confront a different way of thinking and doing. While a younger person may prefer to pursue matters linearly, an older adult may want to take a more roundabout (and time-consuming) approach. Here, we recommend listening more than talking. Remember, listening is not the same as agreeing. And listening can have a healing effect on the older adult.
Some do’s and don’t’s:
If the loved one were fully competent – how would you speak to her? If not competent, how would your speech change? Be aware of the difference. Keep your speech as respectful as possible while maintaining her safety.
Make requests, don’t issue commands. “Would you like to sit here?” not “Sit here.”
Let him do as much as possible for himself – don’t rush to “help” him do what he can still do. (If you’re the one needing care, don’t slip into expecting others to wait on you. Do as much as you can for yourself.)
Offer choices: “Would you rather have fish or chicken for dinner? What vegetable would you like? We have string beans, tomatoes, and broccoli.”
Think of ways the person can still be useful – and ask her to help you. Then say, “Thank you.”
Respect and choices are crucial to maintaining compassionate communication – and healthy, loving relationships — in the face of changing roles.
We welcome your creative suggestions – how have you handled this?