Don’t Fence Me In: See the Real Me
How caregivers can adapt so seniors can live a true expression of who they really are.
Originally published in Tech-Enhanced Life, 7/14/16
“I mean, who really wants to play f-ing Bingo?” mused senior Allen Bertram.
At age 92, many people might think that Bingo is, in fact, an appropriate activity for him to do. This, however, is not what came to light in a number of conversations we had with seniors which revealed there’s a lot to improve in how we engage with and understand seniors.
Each senior we spoke with was strong and passionate.
Allen Bertram, the same man who pooh-poohed Bingo, is a suave, energetic, lifelong New Yorker and active musician/actor/writer who has a great mind that doesn’t forget much. He actively continues to write novels and invent products today.
How does he manage to be so dynamic at his age, while others live teetering on the edge of death?
“I think it’s because people have no imagination [about aging]. They were raised to think that aging happens a certain way.
But for me, life’s about having fun. Writing about the fun I’ve had is my fun now. I’ve been surrounded by wonderful people and minds most of my life. As a writer, it’s my job to have a good memory and to keep learning about people — the things they go through, what they do.”
Allen continues to walk around his community as the “king of the block” and knows many life stories. His advice to peers:
“Don’t live in your living room — go out and have fun! Don’t have a limited life. This is why you are miserable.”
Another 92-year-old, Allen Kent, a former Broadway actor, also had some advice for his peers:
“Stop talking about your apartment. That doesn’t impress me. Tell me what you do outside your apartment. Get some exercise and move your body. If you can’t move one leg, move the other.
Exercise not only our muscles but your senses. I play piano, write music, and still perform. Even do TV commercials. Creative arts have a lot to do with it.”
It’s clear from Bertram and Kent’s approach to life that they don’t fit the stereotype of what it means to be a “senior.” Despite being in their 90s, both men behave as if they have a true age that’s much younger than their physical age. And, it’s no small feat to do so.
Transitioning into “senior” life, aging folks are often treated like children without empathy or respect. And when it comes to the environments and products dedicated to seniors, folks suffer because of one common message: You are frail, and you need help. Which may sometimes be the case — but not always.
Messages such as “you are frail,” and the following statements are commonly experienced by seniors. It is truly impressive what vivacious seniors have to overcome:
- You cannot take lead or provide guidance.
- You are behind the times; you are not wise.
- You may make poor decisions.
- You are an invalid.
- Your voice does not count or matter.
- You must do what we say.
- You cannot have the luxury of privacy.
- You have no power here because of the above reasons.
Lyn, a 67-year-old former gardener living in an independent community for seniors, says it like this:
“It’s like we’re in a concentration camp.”
And we wonder why many seniors are angry, miserable, defensive!
When asked what inspired her, she talked about her plants
Lyn describes people who are left isolated, explaining that the “mind goes” — and once you’re put into a facility like hers, it seems that the “next step” is just to die.
She feels her facility has a corporate feel rather than run by “human beings with feeling and with empathy.” According to Lyn, it feels like people are “thrown in there.”
Still, while talking to Lyn, we weren’t talking to a negative person. When asked her what inspired her, she talked about her plants. She spoke freely about her work as a gardener, where she was “independent,” “accountable,” and had “autonomy”; that the experience “taught her a lot.” Even when describing her plants, she used the word “unrestricted” to describe the love they gave to her.
In one short conversation, Lyn gives a vivid picture of what a good life is for her: One with independence and accountability, one where it was safe to express oneself in an unrestricted way- and to be listened to, to boot!
There’s a lot in life for Lyn. And we found that out by simply asking her, and stepping into her world.
Passion like Lyn’s is far from encouraged or fostered in what are often soulless facilities where people are placed after a certain age.
So, how can we help seniors be more spirited and positive?
The more important question to ask is: How can we as caregivers and providers change how we interact with seniors in order to inspire them?
First, we need to acknowledge our own outlook. For example: Are we looking at the someone’s age instead of the person? Are we quick to judge people in general? Do we take responsibility for unpleasant relationships?
When we judge people by age, race, appearance, and the like,. and don’t recognize the addition of our own biased interpretations to events, we can perpetuate unhealthy patterns. When you prepare for an interaction with a senior, you may also unintentionally prep your senior into unhealthy thinking and behaving.
For example, as a caregiver offering to walk with a senior outside for fresh air, may say “you are frail” not with words but with protective caregiver behavior. Doing this with a senior who is NOT frail may persuade them to think they are frailer than they actually are.
Learn how to step into the senior’s shoes
Secondly, learn how to step into the senior’s shoes — that is, to empathize.
It’s important to understand this: Empathy is not a feeling!
An empathic caregiver offers real choices
What is empathy then? The ability to truly understand and share in another person’s feeling and experience.
Empathy is not just about listening to people when they speak, or providing comfort and emotional support. True empathy begins with truly seeking to understand the feeling and interpretation of what was said from the other person’s point of view and making sure to get it right. We engage with all people better if we use and develop empathy.
An empathic caregiver in the earlier situation (walking with a senior for fresh air) observes the senior first, before asking their preference for assistance; then listens to their answer and responds to it. Perhaps this senior wants to go for a run (and is prepared)! Or they may want to look at gardens, or even play pool. An empathic caregivers offers real choices.
Lastly, we need to learn how to design for, care for and engage with folks with empathy, asking them for honest feedback and responding to it. Welcome even the negative things — you might even be bold and ask for more!
Repeat all three steps, paying special care to be empathetic. It takes practice! Without empathy, you will have little real ability to bring inspiration to seniors.
Your ability to inspire seniors, even the strong ones, will dramatically increase.
When you consistently practice empathy, it’s just the opposite: your ability to inspire seniors, even the strong ones, will dramatically increase. And caregivers will inspire themselves as a result. The more you understand, the more you have to give.
A recent article(link is external) states that in older adults, health is not just the “absence of disease” but also “the presence of physical, psychological, and social well-being.” In fact, these are more correlated to health than chronological age. These insights are also supported by our interviews — seniors are often not as unhealthy as we think, and they can be filled with health and vitality at any age! They live life according to their individual sense of well-being and attitude. And unfortunately, caregivers might contribute to a lack of vitality in aging folks by unintentionally reinforcing and encouraging unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
And the larger questions are always looming: How can caregivers adapt to provide great care to a rapidly growing senior population? And how can seniors adapt to a world filled with intimidating yet extremely helpful advances in medicine, therapies and technology?
The practice of empathy offers caregivers inspiration
The practice of empathy offers caregivers inspiration, and a new perspective about how seniors can freely express their strengths and true selves. Caregivers who actively practice empathy can both prevent unhealthy patterns, and meet true needs. With your authentic support, your seniors might move beyond Bingo to get spunky and curious about our changing world, gain greater health, and even learn a new technology or two!