Discretely: Mrs H

Last week I stopped by to visit a long-time client. While she suffers from dementia and has her good and not-so-good days, that morning she taught me something that, since I have been sharing with our employees and caregivers.

Upon entering her well-sunlit house, I saw a seemingly frail, 80 plus year-old lady standing with the help of a walker next to what one day was her dining table and now had on top a handful of jigsaw puzzles at different stages of completion.

Speaking in a higher pitch than usual I asked her how she was doing that day unaware of the patronizing tone and pose I had adopted automatically to address her.

Evidently, I was not the first person to ask her the same thing that morning nor, as she indignantly indicated, would I be that last. In fact, before she even started responding, her stare told me that she had had enough.

With extraordinary, albeit temporary, lucidity my client explained to me that throughout her life she had been a strong, independent woman that knew what she was doing and where she was going at all times. She had built a successful business over many years of hard work and tenacity and had managed her employees with a firm hand. A very firm hand, in fact, as some of our caregivers who had known her in those days would attest. She just didn’t understand why everyone now felt the need to “overprotect her, watch her every move, and control her every action as if she were half a person” as she stated. Our caregiver then took me aside and told me that our client was having one of those days.

As I left the house, I kept thinking about this revealing exchange. I knew that given the mental condition of our client and the recurrence of episodes where precisely our caregivers’ actions prevented potentially hazardous occurrences, Mrs H had a point. Regardless of her state, she was not half a person and should not be seen, much less treated, as one.  And, while no one does this consciously, it is not uncommon to behave in a way that sends the wrong message, even if for all the right reasons.

Caregiving can be tricky. Sometimes clients’ moods and their demand for attention can change abruptly from one minute to the next. The ability to adapt to these changes with minimal disruption to the relationship is key. Also very important is listening with ears, eyes, and heart, as well as communicating with body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice more than only with words. In dealing with our elders, ill or not, we must never forget that one day they were young and lively persons with dreams and ambitions who had their own challenges and accomplishments. They were once like you and me, and we may one day be right where they are today.

The Discretely column by Eduardo Berdegué is published monthly in newspapers throughout the Heart of Texas region.

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