As a nursing student decades ago, my first summer job was taking care of an older lady at her home. My employer was her daughter, who had taken her mom in to live with her.
Due to a major stroke, the mom didn’t speak, except for a rare “yes” or “no”. My job as a home care worker was to read to her (the Bible only), help her to the bathroom, walk her a short distance outside, and get her in and out of bed. She had a walker and wheelchair. I kept her company and did small chores while her daughter was away from the house.
As a young nursing student, I had already learned a few important things about older people: touch is very important, and humor can lift the spirits. Not everyone responds well to touch, but most do.
Though my patient could not talk, she could still smile. I worked at drawing that from her like it was a full on mission. Whenever I had to put my arms around her to help her get out of bed or to do anything, I gave her a little squeeze and said “free hug!” She actually chuckled. It was part of our ritual.
The summer passed quickly. As it grew near the end, and time to return to school, I prepared her day by day for my departure.
On the last day, I took her hands and said goodbye and told her how much I had enjoyed taking care of her. This little, white-haired, non-speaking frail lady looked at me and said, to my astonishment “I don’t know how I’ll ever get on without you”.
It was an unforgettable moment! Her daughter was stunned and told the whole family about her Mom uttering a whole sentence. To this day, I get a tear in my eye remembering how the near miracle of a person who couldn’t speak happened when she wanted to say “thank you”.
It’s easy to underestimate the power of contact with our aging parents. I discovered that a tiny bit of affection added to the care of an individual every day had made a difference in the life of this precious person. Yes, not every elder is receptive. And maybe your loved one is not pleasant and you stay away. But you can try a different approach and see what happens.
Sometimes the very simplest things can lift their spirits in ways we might not anticipate.
1. Touch is a powerful communicator and can be better than words for some elders. When vision is poor, hearing is imperfect, and confusion reigns, touch makes up for what the senses may lack.
2. Attention. When you can, show up and just be present, even if you think they don’t appreciate you. The last part of our parents’ lives is the remaining opportunity we have to make a difference. That difference might be for us as much as for them.
3. Humor. Not everyone can “get” a joke, but little ways to draw a smile are workable to lighten their spirits. Everyone feels good with a smile each day, and laughing is even better. Figure out what your aging parent likes in the way of humor and when possible, offer it.
For many folks caring for aging parents, the journey is long, and it can be brutally difficult at times. But when you focus on these three tips, it will make your job go better, as your effort is worthy of your energy, even if you don’t get a hoped-for result. Trying what you can uplifts the caregiver.
And, on your aging parent journey, if you can ever have the feeling I had when that little sweet lady I cared for spoke a whole sentence to me, I wish it for you a thousand times over.