I’m fascinated by how we learn to communicate. We start naturally by developing language skills as infants through our interaction with others. We develop comprehension long before we begin to speak. We have, quite literally, been communicating through language our whole lives.
We rely on the foundations of our language development in most of our dealings with others. These foundations are rarely sufficient, however, and miscommunication is common.
In business settings, we are taught tools for improving communication, spoken or written. We use these tools because we know our workplace success depends on them.
With strangers, we know we need to understand their perspectives and motives. When dealing with family and close friends, this happens so naturally that we’re not aware of it until our loved one’s needs change.
Few people prepare for the communication challenges of caring for our parents or significant others who develop memory impairment.
We need to learn a new set of tools based on empathy and understanding. We must use each of them effectively to succeed as caregivers and enjoy a stress-free relationship with our loved ones.
The Psychology Today website offers guidance to help develop the tools we need. I’ll amplify a bit on each, but the key to all is the same: demonstrating respect for those we love.
As we age, our needs and desires change. We need to understand that our loved one’s needs are changing too. Simultaneously, they do not want to burden those they love, so demonstrating respect in communication is crucial and begins with patience and compassion.
Being rushed or expressing annoyance at the situation conveys a sense of inconvenience, even if it’s unintended. Taking time to center yourself with deep, controlled breathing often helps to get into the proper frame of mind to find this patience.
Psychology Today also suggests asking instead of ordering your loved one, and they recommend asking questions instead of making assumptions. These are two very different topics of conversation, particularly as dementia progresses.
I find adult children caring for parents often struggle by telling their parents what to do. Especially when in a hurry to get back to work, activities, family, pets, kids, and more, they unconsciously place their own needs ahead of those who require care.
The unspoken communication is that the person needing care is a burden and keeps their child from more enjoyable things.
Both adult children and significant others often make flawed assumptions about their loved ones who require care. We think we know them better than anyone, but their needs are changing. The changes may be in what they want any given day or rooted in memory decline.
Regardless, asking what our loved one needs rather than assuming we know goes a long way toward maintaining a good relationship over time.
Since we’re discussing asking questions, we should remind ourselves to listen carefully to the answers.
I often watch as my clients unconsciously move to other thoughts and solutions based on assumptions. Caring about the answers, offering time to think and respond, ask questions, and express themselves is essential for good communication.
The next tip suggests using “I” instead of “you” language, which reminds me of something I learned in my college psychology classes.
The premise is deceptively simple but challenging. Shifting the conversation from “you need to” to “I will” eliminates giving orders while offering solutions. It also reflects the positive, solution-oriented mindset needed for constructive and respectful communication.
Another tip is to offer choices whenever possible.
We need to think through any situation we need to address and arrive at a set of options. Rather than asking open-ended questions, options provide freedom of choice while bounding those choices to those we can accept and implement.
Reminding ourselves that our loved ones have a tremendous amount of wisdom to impart and treating them with respect and dignity goes a long way. Learning to be clear without showing frustration requires patience and understanding.
It helps to stick with one topic at a time and be deliberate, waiting for a response instead of jumping to the next topic like so many of us do.
Remember, too, that none of us needs to be alone while caring for aging loved ones. Help is widely available through support groups, including the free support group I offer every week.
Including others and being open to improving communication and developing better relationships is vital to help our aging loved age with dignity.
Lauren Mahakian is a Certified Dementia Practitioner. She supports families affected by Alzheimers, dementia, and cognitive disorders through care management services, the podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren, free support groups, and memory care homes in Torrance and Solvang. Visit familyconnectcare.com for more information.