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Caregiving Language – Use It to Uplift and Embrace

By Brenda, Avadian, MA, The Caregiver’s Voice

If you are caring for someone who is living with Alzheimer’s disease, maybe you can relate to this experience:

“Are you with me or not?” my father asked sternly.

“Yes, I’m with you!” I replied without hesitation.

Alzheimer’s disease had progressed between the mid- to late-stage of the disease for my father.

I scanned his face and the area for clues. None. I had no idea what he was talking about.

He looked annoyed at me – at my inaction. “We have to get going, now!”

“How about you take the lead? I’ll be right beside you.”

He walked to the front door. We stood there and waited.

It turned out, we were waiting for the train from California to England to fight with our “fellow countrymen.” My father’s never been to England. His fellow countrymen are Armenian, not English. And, of course, no train travels from California across the ocean, but none of that was important.

Even when someone is making so little sense, how you respond as a caregiver matters to your relationship with them. Even when a person with dementia can express himself, we might still be left asking ourselves, “What is he talking about?” You can’t be a mind reader, and you don’t have to be. Choose your words carefully with kindness to help this person feel secure and safe in your company.

The Negative Nature of Our Language

The words we choose impact how secure we help our care recipients feel. Oftentimes, we don’t realize how our language affects others.

After initial mishaps, I learned to align with my father’s requests.

When he says he wants to drive somewhere, I hand him the keys. Like the improvisational artist, I try keep the scene moving, having no idea what to expect. The fact is, he cannot legally drive anymore.

After he moved to California from his Wisconsin home of 45 years, I knew the new setting would be disorienting and he no longer had a car to drive. With some confidence I’d reply, “You had the car last. I don’t know where you parked it.” My strategy was to go along with him, not argue or correct.

He’d take the car keys and walk rapidly, pause, look at the car keys - two postal box keys, two house keys and a car key fob. Confusing to a man who was used to plain similarly sized keys. Distracted by something else, he set the keys down. Each time, I thought, Phew, that was a close call!

Ask yourself, “Do my words push people away or do they bring them closer?”

Our goal is to give verbal hugs with language that embraces. I aligned with my father’s request to drive and even handed him a set of keys. We want to uplift those we care for with our remarks.

It’s quite a challenge, because the English language limits our choices.

We speak mainly in either-or, black or white and yes or no. There are few words to describe the greys, the in-betweens and the maybes. Furthermore, our use of language tends to skew negative.

For example, consider one deflating yet all-too-frequent response to a compliment. A server, receptionist or a customer-care employee, may reply, “No problem.” After I uplift a person with words of praise, hearing “no problem” is deflating. I wonder, when did this become a “problem?”

It might feel more uplifting to reply with, “You’re welcome” or “My pleasure.” These words can feel more like an embrace.

Consider practicing these three tips to embrace and uplift with your words.

Language-Use Tips

Say what is.

Instead of saying what we don’t want or what isn’t -

“What did you think of that?”

“Not bad!”

“What would you like to eat?”

“Not ham!”

Practice using words to express what we want.

“I’m really in the mood for a small piece of roast beef. That would really hit the spot, right now.”

We spend so much time on the exception or what we don’t want, we can lose sight of the plentiful buffet of options before us.

Keep things positive with encouragement such as, “I’m in the mood for…” and keep a conversation going rather than shutting it down with a negative. Reread the italicized replies, above and take note of how you feel.

In general, this negative slant in our language-use, may be one reason our goals are elusive. When we focus on excluding or what we don’t want, that’s what we often get. When our attention and efforts are aimed toward what we want in life, we’ll have a better chance of achieving it.

Habits are hard to change. When we muster the courage each day and commit to apply these skills, we’ll have a better chance of success in day-to-day care of our loved one. Adding an improvisational tool will help, too.

The goal with improvisation is to keep the scene moving. The primary way to accomplish this is to respond affirmatively. Improvisational artists will say, “Yes.” They’ll also add “and” followed by a new piece of information.

While presenting a keynote recently, I briefed a volunteer and then asked her, “May I have $5.00?” She replied, “Yes.” As she reached into her pocket, she asked, “And may I have a $20?” 

The audience laughed. She kept the scene moving, instead of refusing with “No” or “I don’t have a “five.”

Practice responding in such a way that you align yourself with your care recipient’s interests. Instead of shutting down communications and creating feelings of insecurity, you’ll strengthen your relationship and find space to add a touch of humor.

Add Humor
When the conversation is flowing, it frees-up creative energy. In the example above, the attendee’s response was a win-win. I got what I wanted and her clever response got her even more. Plus, we entertained the audience.

Interactions that include laughter (even smiles) bring people closer and strengthen feelings of security.

Are You with Me?

As my father and I stood at the door waiting for a train that would never come in our lifetimes, I remained clueless. I had no idea what he had in mind. Without challenging his resolve, I asked tangential questions.

“Do you think the train will take us from California to England?”

He looked at me quizzically.

“I mean, will we need to board another train?”

Trying to assess my sincerity, he replied, “We’ll be traveling through the night, making many stops to pick up others.”

Oh my! This is going to be a challenge. What the heck is he talking about? I tried another approach.

“Since we’ll need our strength, shall we eat, first? I’ll check the schedule to make sure we don’t miss the train.”

“Sure, let’s eat. Let’s make sure we don’t miss the train.”

After all that, I learned we were in the midst of WWII. He had been paging through an issue of LIFE magazine.

In my personal experience as a caregiver, I have found that using these strategies results in uplifting and embracing communications and improving our relationships.

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