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Checks and balances in communication between caregivers and elders

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

In spite of declining health, including speech communication challenges, some elders are sharp as a tack in reading their caregivers. Don't be fooled by eldercare appearances, even in presence of dementia symptoms and/or other chronic disease processes.

Boomers Caring for Their Elders: Lifelong Family Dynamic

Remember the old, "Do as I say, and not as I do" wisdom from childhood? Back in the day, the "do as I say" parental practice was clear to most children, and anyone within miles when elders spoke. Back then, some of our elders spoke once, if we were lucky. If, somehow, their children missed the one-time warning, "the look" immediately followed. That look sufficed for those of us who knew what was good for us children. Baby Boomers now joke about the old-time parental look that made children freeze and heed.

Do as I say" is a parent's expectation for children to do the right thing, come what may. Even if parents did not live up to lessons handed down to their offspring, many parents did their best to lead their children in proper or socially normative ways of doing things. No back-talking was allowed.

That was then, as in childhood. This is now, as in baby boomers caring for our elders. The Boomer roll-call shows that many of us are doing our very best to lead our elders.

The not-so-minor difference now is that unlike parent-child relationships, elders have lived full lives and have acquired many die-hard habits over time. Elders are mature adults whose lives often include a track record of successful accomplishments. Who died and left the Boomers in charge? The good news, at least for some caregivers, is that no one died.

Some Elders Read Their Caregivers Like a Book

As I go about my merry business, my octogenarian mother's simple messages come at me, fair-and-square. Her running commentary proves insightful.

A couple of Mom's gems include:

  • "Are you wearing your slippers?" (Zing!)

  • "How come you haven't eaten yet?" (Touché, Mom. Gee, you're good. I don't suppose "I'm not hungry" would work? Just a guess?)

Mom's words sure sound familiar to me as her caregiver! Wonder which came first, the care-chicken, or the care-egg?

Carers are Always Communicating With Their Elders

Just as some parents may have been amused by their childrens' avoidance antics, there is just as much fuel in caregivers' and elders' interactions to amuse some elders for the rest of their lives. Here are a couple of examples that come to mind.


Increasingly, and by design, I speak in gentler tones. I continuously revisit why, or whether, I may need to speak more loudly. There's a firm voice. But there's also a needless escalation of my voice in my feeble, and entirely human, attempt for Mom to better hear what I am saying. Loss of hearing with advancing age is one of eldercare's many challenges.

Picture this: Mom calls out to me from another part of the house, starts asking questions, or telling me something that I can't hear. Neither can she hear anything I'm saying by way of reply from my remote location in the house. I used to say, "…We can't hear each other. Give me a moment. I'll be right with you." I've noticed that my reply seldom leads to any break in conversation. Little wonder, since my reply is likely not heard.

Usually Mom's answer is, "What did you say?," which is amusing. Admittedly, it is less amusing when it is all happening. We could be on a television sitcom, I suspect.

There can be needless escalation of tones between and among caregivers and elders, including due to logistics such as I have described and/or hearing impairments. In-home care poses its unique challenges, including elder and caregiver comfort and long-standing family traditions. Speaking back and forth across nursing units in nursing homes is less likely to happen, though anything can happen in eldercare.

Nutrition is a Two-Way Street

I was amused when Mom had this to say: "No more of my eating without your eating with me. Why should I eat and you're not eating?" We both had a good laugh when she shared her viewpoint one day, seemingly out of the blue. Point well-taken, Mom.

Although I often sit to eat at the same time with Mom, there are just as many times where I choose to eat alone. I might be hungry later, or choose to eat a non-therapeutic meal which takes a little longer to prepare. Sometimes, I'm simply winding down from meal preparation before I choose to eat. It all depends. Most importantly, my care focus remains on Mom being served her meals in a timely manner.

Sometimes I prepare and serve Mom her meal at the dining table, start a load of laundry, and return to take a seat at the table. Even full-time caregivers don't have the luxury of time. Like other carers, I juggle household, administrative and care tasks, all of which are part of eldercare territory. I also ensure that I enjoy downtime.

Mom's elder consistency radar and perspective provides a balance I welcome. Her comments help me to enjoy more meals and leisurely conversations with her, instead of doing a "few more things" before I sit at the dining table. Laundry can wait, just not too long.

Walking the Talk in Care

I'm enjoying walking my caregiver's talk. It helps knowing that I am on elder consistency radar. It is also amusing. I'm learning from a wise elder whom I respect. I couldn't ask for anything more.