Simplest Advice for Elder Care
The simplest way to care for elderly people is to listen to them.
There are many negative stereotypes of geriatric patients within the healthcare industry. Some consider elderly patients difficult or unfulfilling to work with because they only decline. This ageist labeling is unfair. Most elderly people are invested in having as high a quality of life as possible. They have valuable knowledge about their abilities and health that can help health providers guide their advice and treatments. Imposing stereotypes not only obfuscates that knowledge but can lead to poorer outcomes. The simplest way to care for elderly people is to listen to them.
This is because everyone ages differently. To demonstrate this, I’m going to briefly describe my grandparents. One of my grandfathers was mentally and physically independent until he died at age 88. My other grandfather has a variety of conditions that make it difficult for him to maintain even basic hygiene at a much younger age. One of my grandmothers has had cognitive impairments for her entire life and is used to receiving accommodations, and is physically unimpaired. My other grandmother is currently losing cognitive and physical functions and is frustrated by this. This tiny sample represents a huge range of abilities and health, demonstrating just how diverse aging can be. That makes listening crucial--otherwise, their care providers won’t have an actual understanding of how to provide for them.
The heterogeneity of aging is often overlooked in healthcare. In one survey of community-dwelling elders (i.e. those living independently), 43% of respondents noted that doctors or nurses would simply assume their ailments came from age, and 9% were denied treatment for that reason. This means that some issues, particularly pain, go under treated by the medical community at large. Overtreatment is also an issue, where chronological age is assumed to correspond to certain types of care that may not be necessary or even helpful for the elderly individual in question. This is especially common during end-of-life care. Both can be reduced by better respecting the priorities and stated experiences of each elderly person.
It can be especially difficult to listen to elderly people’s needs when they suffer from a cognitive impairment like dementia, or a physical impairment like hearing loss. Repetition, forgetting things that happened, or not understanding things that happened are all common communication issues. Even in these cases, it is still important to try to respond to what input they give you. If they have difficulty speaking, watch for nonverbal cues. Using simpler language and providing visual cues may also help make your communication easier. However, it is important to make these adjustments only after it’s been demonstrated that they’re necessary. Many elderly people are not cognitively impaired, and even those who are can reasonably perceive overly simplistic language as insulting. Understanding how they perceive their situation can give you the tools necessary to more easily care for them. And by responding to their understanding, they at least know you are listening, and are more likely to trust you.
When you’re part of an organization that sees many people, balancing each individual’s needs becomes even more difficult. However, with an open ear and a willingness to follow through, it is possible to provide excellent care for each person.