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Great communication is essential to supporting our ageing loved ones as they adjust to the changes taking place in their lives. Despite this, it can be challenging to know what the right approach is and we can often unconsciously fall into ‘telling’ mode as we take responsibility for our parents and their arrangements.
Lindsay Tighe is CEO of Better Questions, an organisation that helps people improve their relationships through better communications. Author of the book ‘I’m old, not stupid’, Lindsay shares her top tips for ensuring that we’re empowering our loved ones with the words we choose.
1. When you treat someone like they are capable and able, they will show you that they are capable and able.
As their care needs increase, there can be a tendency to underestimate our elderly population – but Tighe advises us to remember that people who are ageing still have strengths, wisdom and abilities that they can bring to the table.
“Challenge your mindset and perceptions of what being old means.”
Our tendency to want to ‘fix’ things can unconsciously signal incapability to our older family members, which in turn, creates incapability. As she explains;
“Traditionally we believe that as our relatives get older we need to provide help, which means that we feel the need to take over and do things for them.”
While acknowledging that in some instances, particularly where someone may have cognitive problems, help is required. But Tighe also urges us to consider that while some older people may no longer have the skills or resources to do things for themselves, for others, it might be about a lack of confidence, self belief or a learned helplessness that can emerge from habit or expectation of having things done for you.
She suggests that a simple mindset shift can influence our interactions and natural response styles. By recognising that the capabilities of older people are wide ranging, our conversations will help them to realise these capabilities for themselves.
2. Be a better listener.
Tighe recognises that it’s natural for families to want to jump in and fix things, offer advice and generally do things at a fast pace.
“We live in a fast-paced world where we demand immediate answers, and often this is scary for the recipient of our questions.”
But improved communications will only come about when we slow down and take the time to listen to what is being said by our loved ones. It is important to ensure that they know that they still have a voice and that they believe they are being listened to.
“Let’s acknowledge that often older people will operate a little more slowly than they used to…. Being prepared to give the person time to find their own answer is a good strategy to adopt.”
3. Ask ‘Better Questions’.
As a final tip, Tighe encourages us to think about the questions that we are asking. Questions are a way to enable people to think for themselves. They also serve to demonstrate our interest and are a means to empower and show respect to others.
“Our society seems to be one of ‘tellers’ as opposed to ‘askers’, and you will be amazed at the impact of changing your approach has on other people”.
When adopting the carer/recipient dynamic, older people in this space can become passive, or compliant. This dynamic is further reinforced by our own tendency to tell. When you fix a problem for your older family member, you are taking responsibility for them. But when you ask a question and they find the answer, they are taking responsibility.
In her book, Tighe touches on the scientific proof behind the benefit of asking questions. Studies in neuroscience have found that when a person is enabled to formulate their own ideas and decisions, it releases neurotransmitters such as endorphins into the brain, creating motivation, drive and commitment. “In other words, that feel good factor.”
By using a questioning approach, it is unconsciously relaying a message that we have trust and belief in the person we are communicating with.
This is a message that can have a profound impact on our elderly loved ones.