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Hold that reactionary thought

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

There are countless times that some of our elders engage in behaviors or conversations that come at us caregivers as if out of the blue. When a carer least expects a seemingly stray comment or remark, there it comes, perhaps to see if we remain on high alert. As caregivers are only human, sometimes we react - prematurely, and even needlessly. Stick a pin in that reactionary thought and moment and let it dissipate, if possible.

Elders Say the Strangest, Cutest, You-Name-It Things

One of my friends mentioned that his Mom has been thinking that her spouse may be having an affair. Minor detail is that my friend's Dad has been dead for at least a decade. That doesn't matter to his Mom. In fact, his Mom has said that she'll show her husband a thing or two. She'll just burn the house down. Such a comment would be good cause for a reasonable caregiver to become alarmed, if ever there is cause for alarm. That's a different day and a different story, however. The family member who cares for my friend's Mom remains on almost-sleepless overnight high alert.

Cleaning and Clicking?

My mother loves washing dishes and keeping a clean kitchen. Mom's habit has never been a problem for me. I love cooking. Our in-home strategic partnership works well. As one of my friends has said, "it's a match made in heaven," given our respective preferences in the kitchen. Sweet!

The last thing Mom does before winding down at nights is to make sure dishes are washed, dried and stored. She then pours two glasses of ice water - one for herself, and one for me - in the finest family tradition of hospitality. If we have overnight guests, she pours the guest a glass of water for the guest's bedside table overnight.

Mom wipes down kitchen counters and the stove top before she gives the kitchen her final once-over look for the night. I never gave Mom's night-time kitchen routines a second thought, until fairly recently. That night, I heard the clicking sound of a gas burner being turned on before the flame engages. The clicking sound signals that there is gas leaking. Not a good thing, let's just say, especially while I am on another level of my home.

Initially, my reactionary handling was, "Mom, please turn the stove off. That clicking sound means that gas is leaking. That is unsafe and could lead to an explosion." Invariably, Mom's reply was, "Why do I have to turn the stove off?" Other than the explosion, I have no other credible answer that comes to mind. This is still a free country, and Mom is not part of the supermax lock-down penitentiary population.

A couple of months into the night-time clicking routine I finally got it. Instead of speaking to each other back and forth from different levels in our home, I walked downstairs at the sound of the first clicking. First, I observed Mom as she tried to get the flame to ignite. Then, I calmly asked her whether she was hungry or wanted something to eat again before going to sleep.

Live and Learn

The answer was simple. She was not hungry, nor was she just playing around with the gas stove. Mom had reverted to a long-ago practice of wanting to prepare a cup of hot tea, as she, Dad, and others in our family once enjoyed at day's end. "Well, don't I have to make you some hot tea?" she asked. "Not unless you want a cup of tea, Mom. I don't want any hot tea. Do you?" I answered. Turns out that Mom didn't want a cup of hot tea, either. She was simply thinking of a time in her life when she boiled water to make hot tea for her family and guests at bedtime.

She still kept both glasses on the counter ready for ice water. She just thought for a split second that she needed to boil water to pour into the glasses she had taken out of the cupboard. Now, when Mom is in her final stages of getting glasses ready for cold water, I offer to share the task by pouring ice water into one glass while she puts ice, then cold water, in the other glass. Whenever I quietly step in to assist with her routine, Mom doesn't feel a need to boil water for hot tea. If she does, she now asks me if I would like a cup of hot tea. How cool is that?

Seek to Understand

Instead of reacting each time an elder says or does something out of the ordinary, it is simpler to seek to understand what the elder may be thinking, seeing, and/or feeling at that particular moment. Seeking to understand is Dr. Stephen Covey's trademark fifth habit in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Dr. Covey's seeking to understand principle speaks to a compelling lesson in personal change. Chronically ill elders communicate in different ways, whether due to chronic illnesses such as dementia and other diseases of the brain, or any number of reasons. Contrary to how some elders may be perceived as tabula rasa, or being entirely out-of-touch, there is an inner world that drives some elder behaviors we may not understand. It is a world often hidden from view unless, and until, we seek to understand.

Rapidly fluctuating blood glucose levels and other chronic medical symptoms aside, why wouldn't I seek to understand what my elders are trying to say and do whenever we interact with each other? That is why I am here.

I'm getting better at life 101. Being a carer just has that effect on me.