One of my fondest childhood memories is of our grandparents seeing us off, waving goodbye from their front porch. Smiling contentedly, and without fail at each and every departure time, they’d take up position watching and waving at the top of the steps.
Whether it be the big Sunday family lunch gathering or just a random quick visit to drop off groceries or pick up a bag of lemons from grandad’s garden – it didn’t matter the reason for the visit or how long we were there. Waving us off was just one of those heart-felt routines that our grandparents dutifully undertook when it came time to seal the deal and bid us farewell.
Of course, that’s after the obligatory round of goodbye kisses, hugs and hair ruffling that seemed to go on forever, before we finally got to bundle ourselves into the car for the ride home.
And I remember too, if we turned around at any stage during our exit, as mum or dad manoeuvred the car down the driveway, that they would still be stood there, happily waving and watching for our return waves through the back window.
Then, as we began slowly to pull away out of view, they’d both sing out in perfect unison:
“Bye, bye….LOVE YOU!”
I sometimes wondered, after we had gone, how long they might have remained standing there! Waving away… clinging on to happy times in a now empty front garden.
Lovely too, was that even after the granddads were gone, both my grandmothers continued the waving tradition alone, never missing a beat. As if this treasured practice was integral to keeping the family unit bound and sacred forever.
I was too young to realise then, but it was indeed likely that this cherished ritual be the final thrust in my grandparent’s campaign to squeeze out as much valuable ‘together’ time as they possibly could.
I wish now, in hindsight, that I had waved back a lot, lot harder.
But, as it delightfully turns out, my grandparents were not the only ‘wavers’ I would ever have the pleasure of!
Thanks to my recent adventures in Aged-Care where I work with older adults in their own homes… I have been fortunate to encounter clients on my travels who also conduct a similar performance when it’s time to say goodbye.
In fact, possibly as a ploy to prolong my visit, some of my clients even go so far as to walk me right out to my car! I guess old habits die hard and chatting all the way, we discuss the cat’s weepy eye, admire the Azaleas and analyse the weather as we go.
Unfortunately, for some of my less sprightly clients who have forgotten that their mobility is not as reliable as it once was, I then have to turn round and walk (or wheel) them back inside again! The thought of driving off and leaving a wobbly pensioner on the footpath clinging to their letterbox just doesn’t bear thinking about! So, I don’t mind in the slightest having to spend a bit more time escorting them back to their front doors again.
Besides, it’s a nice little moment that I know will bring a significant amount of joy to someone else’s day. And to be honest, I consider it a compliment that it feels so comfortable for them to think me wave-worthy in the first place.
“Off we go… let’s get you back inside again, Mr Gadabout!”
Why only today, one of my regular ladies, Florence, whom I’ve worked with for a couple of years now, makes it her business to accompany me out onto her front verandah where she likes to wait, waving goodbye as I hop into my car.
Having observed Flo become increasingly more and more absent-minded (her symptoms recently diagnosed ‘most likely’ as Dementia), to her it’s the most natural thing in the world to see me off. The same as she would a visit from any close friend or family member – except that I am neither.
“I’ll see you off, dear. And then I’ll put Walt’s dinner on”.
In my rear-view mirror I see the the nonchalant Florence surveying the rosebushes for mottled leaves as she continues her well-rehearsed wave, leaning on the rail for support and so she stays in my sights. Then, just as I reach the end of her drive and I do my return wave back, she looks up at that last second when I’ve straightened up and am about to disappear from her view.
Then, a final flourish with her wrist finishes it all off!
And it’s funny… as I pause for a brief moment to watch her go back inside to peel the spuds for her husband Walter (who actually died 12 years ago), I’m struck with nostalgic thoughts of warm childhood family times and the ghosts of ‘wavers’ past.
So unexpected are the feelings in fact, that I find I have to stop myself from the involuntary urge to call out a big cheery “Bye-bye….LOVE YOU!”
Getting our Kids Skilled-Up in the Art of Conversation
It must be wonderful knowing that your teenage son or daughter is mature enough to hold an ACTUAL conversation with your adult friends. Seeing them chat away freely when introduced; radiating confidence galore when asked if they are enjoying their new high school, all the time maintaining solid eye contact and without a dot of embarrassment or discomfort.
Whilst you stand alongside, glowing with pride and marvelling at what clearly must be some pretty bloody fabulous parenting skills, thank you very much!
Today I came close to discovering that my 13-year old son did not possess such ability.
And as a mum who thought she’d had it all covered: good manners, gracious conduct, appropriate behaviour and the biggie ‘respect for others’… it came as a rude slap in the chops, as I watched Junior’s social skills crumble and turn totally to mush.
Our visit this morning was to a medical centre thanks to my son’s recent sporting injury (long story, don’t ask) for follow-up x-rays and to be given the all clear to have the annoying brace on his arm removed.
An ideal location to meet and engage in friendly banter with seniors, it’s common knowledge in aged-care circles, that a doctor’s waiting room is ‘top of the pops’ to test even the most experienced of gasbags!
It was as we sat bored waiting for our turn, when an older smartly-dressed man with walking stick and twinkly eyes, leaned over to my son and asked in a fairly loud tone (hearing issues, obviously), what had he done to himself?
I continued reading my mag, confident that Chatterbox Charlie (as he is known at home and at school), would be equally as open and responsive. The two of them would yak away in ‘blokey’ fashion and by the time we left they’d be best of buddies, possibly even a firm handshake farewell and promises to meet for tea and cake one day soon.
But alas, what was this?
Instead, no! Junior was beside himself! Turning sharply to look at me, his face strained in terror… he was actually pleading me with his eyes, as if to say, “Oh god, please Mum, SAVE ME!”
Mortified, with the realisation that my beloved was indeed a complete social flop after all, I attempted to verbally prompt him so he could explain to the nice inquiring man how he had sprained his arm in a game of football.
The old guy continued on, jokingly encouraging my son to join in.
“I thought you’re supposed to use your leg to kick the footy – not your arm!”
As Junior turned bright red, awkwardly squeaking out some sort of inaudible response (all the time staring down at the floor, clearly wishing the tiles would open up and pull him down into the deep, dark depths of the earth where no scary old dudes could ever find him)… it dawned on me that some people might actually find conversation with an elderly person intimidating.
Especially those they hadn’t met before. And I get that.
Growing up as a painfully shy teen, I remember myself, the feeling of horror when an adult would talk to me – especially one I didn’t know well. The worry of not knowing what to say, or sounding silly if I did say something, or being judged and thought an idiot. It was cause for real anxiety!
In lieu of that thought, I decided my son needed a lesson in the art of conversation, STAT!
Time for me to earn that Mother of the Year badge and get him properly prepped and trained up on some good old-fashioned Communication Skills 101.
Yes, I would be doing this for ME (and my shattered ego), but more significantly, I was doing it for my soppy, socially inept son. It was imperative that in today’s frantic and fiercely competitive world, that he be an efficient communicator; to gain the advantage over his peers by being able to competently talk and earn respect from the older people in his life.
To impress the pants off his teachers, his footy coach or even his own grandparents by engaging them in some light, but thoughtful bit of chit-chat for goodness sake!
And at the same time, emphasise to my son that it didn’t matter what age a person was. That all it took was a little friendliness and a good dollop of empathy to show kindness towards another human being – and to make them feel good. That many ageing adults spent days, sometimes weeks sitting alone in their homes, desperate for company and to feel part of society and in touch with others in their community.
Could he even imagine what that must be like?
So, while I laughed and chatted to my newest dear friend happily sitting alongside us; about the weather, his dreadful arthritis and the outrageous price of petrol, I felt Junior watching on taking it all in. I wasn’t completely daft though; I knew in reality my son’s interest would be only fleeting and that soon enough he’d zone out, switch on his iPod and go back to mindlessly picking at the tag on his arm brace.
But blow me down, before you could ask ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ my amazing little man surprised us all as he turned to the lovely white-haired lady sitting on the other side of him.
Without missing a beat, smiling and looking her straight in the eye, in a big clear voice said, “Hello, are you having a nice day today?” To which her reply was “Why yes, thank you, dear… and how nice of you to ask!”
My faith restored, watching the two of them chatting comfortably, I nearly leapt out of my chair with the excitement of it all! My son was a fantastically social-skilled superstar after all!
Unfortunately, I don’t think the poor little guy will dare go anywhere in public with his lunatic mother again. Possibly my cheering and ‘high five-ing’ the nosy receptionist was a little over the top… THOUGHTS?
Knocking on the front door of a newly-assigned elderly person’s home for that very first time is always an anxious few seconds, but understandably even more nerve-racking if you are a newbie to this ‘caregiver’ caper.
In fact, I recall many years ago the day of my first shift ever… standing at the top of the steps, staring at a stranger’s doorbell (of someone I would shortly be helping undress for their shower) and wondering if it was not too late to turn and run for the hills!
What if they don’t like me?
What if I run out of time?
WHAT IF I DO IT WRONG?!?!
I remember, too, thinking how I hadn’t really been forewarned on the reality of what to expect when arriving at a sceptical senior’s house for our first meeting. I knew that I needed to be confident and professional in order to gain trust, but it turned out to be instinct I relied on to provide my client with a warm friendly vibe, that put them at ease. I wanted them to know that not only was I was good at my job, but that I was a genuinely kind, empathetic person – and that I CARED too!
Luckily for me, my first client was the most adorably grateful, yet desperately frail gent who didn’t give a toot that I was the new kid on the block. He was just so relieved to have me there.
Which I guess at the end of the day is what it’s actually all about… THEM.
And NOT me.
So, I thought it might be helpful to list some essential, yet often over-looked pointers, to ensure the initial meet ‘n’ greet with your new client is as successful as it can possibly be. That brief, but impressionable moment where you get to reveal your amazing self and to plant the seed for a future mutually beneficial and respectful working relationship.
Appearing at your client’s door with the cheeriest, beaming-est face you can muster, will often be enough to knock the wind out of a potentially grumpy or resentful elder’s sails.
Include a hearty ‘smile’ in your voice as well, which should nip any bad temper in the bud before they’ve had a chance to remember what they were cross about in the first place!
Trust me, it works a treat – and what have you got to lose?
2. Use formal address – ALWAYS
Make a promise to yourself as an accomplished carer, to always use your client’s official title – especially for that initial intro:
“Hello, Mrs Picklehead, how are you today?“
Older generations were bought up believing that this is the ultimate sign of respect – and it’s never to be messed with. If you are unsure of their marital status (you will come across the odd hard-nut spinster out there who’s never married and who will soon let you know if you dare to assume she’s a Missus) – in this case, it’s best to opt for the full name approach:
“Good morning… Marjorie Jackhammer, is it?”
And as daunting as it may seem, you should always attempt to pronounce your client’s surname, regardless of how tricky it might look on paper. That’s including the culturally curly ones that contain just about every letter in the alphabet – including all five vowels TWICE.
I will never forget standing outside Mrs Gina Kantezkantopituolos’s door in a cold sweat at the thought of insulting her by ballsing up her name and having her hate me forever. She actually confided in me later that she’d appreciated me having a try (as feeble as it was) because others never even bothered. For that reason, she’d eventually become known as ‘Mrs K’ just to save a fuss.
“For efficiency’s sake”, she’d always say.
Ultimately, ‘Gina’ and I got on so famously she insisted I call her by her first name anyway. Phew…problem solved.
3. Introduce yourself
You’ll discover as you become more experienced and worldly, that some of your more dependant or unwell clients may have a whole army of carers, case workers, nurses, health professionals, specialists and home support people coming and going on any given day of the week – and sometimes ALL AT ONCE.
So to avoid confusion or client embarrassment it is vital that you clearly state your name, rank and serial number when you meet for the first time. That is before you launch into your work.
Also, say where you are from and what you intend to do to them!
There is nothing worse than arriving with your bucket and mop to do a domestic cleaning duty only to discover your client has since stripped off down to her petticoat in anticipation of having her wound dressing changed by whom she thought was the District Nurse instead.
Not that that’s ever happened to me.
No! Not at all, she said.
4. Confirm that your client UNDERSTANDS you
This is not as silly as it sounds. And an accomplished careworker can determine a lot about someone who appears to be hard of hearing or can’t comprehend what is happening (and has no idea what you are babbling on about.)
You’ve got several logical explanations:
your client is hearing impaired (the logical and most common one)
your client is from a non-English speaking background
your client is sick
your client is cranky and in a very, very, very bad mood (is it too late to run away?)
The answer for all of these situations is to slow your speech down, maintain eye contact and modify your voice and tone accordingly. You can find out later on (when you are friends) what the real story is.
Use hand actions if you need to – and don’t be afraid to YELL. I can spend entire days bellowing at elderly clients who have deafness issues only to get home at the end of the day and continue the trend with my family… haha lucky them!
5. Compliment your Client
One of the best bits of never-fail advice I can offer all budding carers (or for anyone trying to be accepted by someone new) is that you need to find something about your new client to compliment them on.
It could be that the buttons on their cardigan are sweet, you just love the colour of their blouse, they’re wearing a pretty-coloured lipstick or they’ve had a haircut and are looking exceptionally spruced-up.
Or… if you’re really struggling to find something nice to say about your client, then admire the lovely photo of their grandchildren, the enormous ceramic vase in the lounge room, the beautifully manicured lawn or the fabulous blooms on the Camelia bush.
Whatever, doesn’t matter.
Most mature-agers feel proud and pleased with themselves when they are told they have something that others might appreciate or find attractive. It has huge impact and lets them know their contributions are still valued and more importantly – that they are people, too!
And it’s a superb way to break the ice and show that you at least seem interested in them. Who knows, you might even CARE for goodness sake.
6. Acknowledge your Client’s Spouse
As an observant caregiver, it’s important to be aware that your new client may live with a husband, wife (or other family member such as a partner, son, daughter, niece etc). These onlookers can offer valuable insight on the person whom you may be about to help shower or spend time with in, say, a Respite capacity while their regular family caregiver has some time away from the house.
It is in your best interests, therefore, to butter-up these people and get them ‘on side’. They have a whole plethora of useful information about their parent, grandparent or great-aunty Doris which will make your job significantly smoother if you take heed of it; information that you won’t find on the Care Plan or in the medical notes.
When you take Uncle Reg on his walk to the library… he loves going via the paddock so he can say hello to the horses. He needs to stick to this routine or he will get quite upset and then we will ALL pay later tonight!
Mum only likes using the pink towels… never the green ones as they were (deceased) Dad’s towels and she will get upset if you try and use them during her shower.
Little stuff like that, but it’s important stuff. And it’s stuff that will help you develop a good healthy rapport and eventually, a trusting relationship with your client AND with their live-in family.
7. Acknowledge Pets
A mistrustful senior will literally GLOW when you show interest in their animals and I can guarantee you, without hesitation… they will instantly adore any visiting carer who does this.
I’ve broken down many a barrier by patting the mangiest of dogs, admired weepy-eyed cats and even whistled at the odd tatty budgie in its cage.
Fake it til you make it, don’t they say? It’s definitely worth it in the end, so do whatever it takes to gain your elder’s approval.
Rub the tummy of flea-bitten Ol’ Yella and say something silly to the cat – you’ll win over the confidence of your brand new judgemental client… and you can disinfect yourself in the car later!
8. LISTEN to your Client
Every brilliant aged-careworker knows that communication is what it’s all about. Speaking yes, but possibly more importantly: LISTENING.
So when you’ve rattled off your initial intro, make sure you take the time to hear what your new client has to say in response. And if their speech is slow or they are struggling to get words out (for whatever reason) DON’T be tempted to talk over them or pre-empt their sentences. Show patience and be respectful in what they are telling you. Be open-minded and NEVER make judgement.
Sounds a bit like the Ten Commandments really…Thou shalt not pass judgement on thine old lady client!
Let’s face it; most of this is common sense.
An astute and qualified carer should be able to evaluate a lot about their new ageing client in that initial meeting at the door. Body language, the way they talk, their hearing and vision, their coordination and mobility – all can reveal potential physical health problems, mental conditions or emotional issues.
And all are clues that are handy for you to be aware of even before you’ve entered their home.
Take note of bloodshot or droopy eyes, the condition and colour of their skin, breathlessness, disorientation or confusion, complaints of pain and weakness can all mean something is not right and as their carer you will need to investigate further. If only to pass it on by reporting your observations to a supervisor for follow-up which may then lead to further assessment or review.
Unfortunately, not only can you hear and see signs, but you can smell them too.
Take note of cigarette smoke, gas, alcohol, rotting food odours (ick) or stinky human excrement smells (double ick) … these are just a few indications of the way your beloved senior lives and that there may or may not be serious health problems afoot.
10. You’re In!
Well done! Superb job!
You’ve passed the probing and interrogation stage and your shiny new client has allowed you to enter their world.
It’s now up to you to maintain your exemplary high standard of caring and strong positive work ethic. Enjoy getting to know your most-recent companion, but remain vigilant and remember there are professional boundaries. And don’t be tempted to cut corners – because it will most definitely bite you on the bum later.
Remember your integrity, listen to your inner voice… and feel pride in being able to provide a service to people who need your support to stay living in their own homes. And who on the most part, are actually very, very, very pleased to see you.