The best way to help older people is to stop ‘telling’ and ‘fixing’

August 18, 2016

The way we communicate with seniors living in residential aged care or at home can either build or inhibit their capability, writes Lindsay Tighe.

The key to enabling aged care consumers to have more choice and control over their lives is to change the way we communicate with them.

Traditionally, aged care has been delivered in a “provider knows best” approach, but since the reforms began in the sector this has now shifted to a “consumer knows best” philosophy.

Lindsay Tighe

This shift demands that we change the way we practice.

The premise of my work is to acknowledge that everyone is far more capable than they realise and the way we communicate with each other can build or inhibit people’s capability.

Communication generally is done too much from the ‘telling’ space and it’s apparent that this approach, whilst done under the guise of being helpful, is one of the biggest inhibitors of enabling and building capability.

Sadly, this telling is often done unconsciously and habitually, probably because this style of communication has been role modelled in our lives, with no awareness of the adverse consequences.

When looking at any change in behaviour, the starting point has to be our mindset and the assumptions that sit behind it.

What assumptions are we making about our roles as aged care professionals? And what assumptions are we making about the older people we’re interacting with?

This kind of reflection can be enlightening. Invariably we find the roles we have created, and the assumptions we’ve made about what seniors want from us, leads directly to us being “fixers, advisers and tellers.”

And that’s despite what we know about consumer directed care, and the wellness and reablement approaches.

Consider how detrimental the telling approach can be and, in particular, how for the person being told it can create:

  • dependence on the teller or fixer

  • less creativity and responsibility

  • passivity or rebellion, or a bit of both

  • a loss of confidence and capability

  • feelings of being disrespected, not understood, frustration or anger

  • a lack of engagement or motivation

Traditionally in aged care we have created care recipients who grow accustomed to being told what to do. Their passivity then creates in aged care professionals a belief that older people need to be told what to do – and so the vicious, unconscious cycle continues.

If aged care staff can redefine their roles to become enablers, by seeking out capability, then they can help to break the cycle and enable consumers to have the control.

One of my favourite quotes is from Plato, who said:

“We all have innate wisdom; we just need to be asked the right question.”

This quote reminds us that if we have a certain mindset when we interact with people, we enable them to become whatever we are holding to be true.

In other words, if you treat a person like they are incapable, they will become incapable. If you treat them like they are capable and wise, they will be more capable and wise.

As a society we have a long way to go in becoming more conscious of our communication and recognising the detrimental impact that most of us have when we unconsciously fix, tell or advise.

I am excited about the possibility for aged care if we all learn the skills to be a better questioner and start to release the capability that resides in everyone.

Lindsay Tighe is the founder of Better Questions and an executive coach, speaker, trainer and author.


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