I have been studying how to unlock the communication code of older adults for the last twenty-three years. My first breakthrough came early on with developmental psychology, a model based on age-specific tasks that are easy to understand, easy to use, and highly effective. As a result, the two tasks of the final phase of life, control and legacy, have earned their way into the vernacular of how to communicate with older adults.
However, in the last few years I have discovered two additional elements that combine with the developmental tasks of older adults to complicate rapport. Understanding what they are and how to engage them preserves effective communication in even the most trying circumstances.
One of these elements is the invasion of dilemmas in the second half of life. Dilemmas resist heroic attempts to keep everything together. Like an unruly Rubik’s Cube, alignment in one caregiver area seems to trigger chaos in another. Just when driving issues calm down, sibling conflict erupts over money. Just when housing accommodations get better, a parent falls and winds up in the hospital. In the face of this steady stream of dilemmas, the natural instinct is to work harder in search of the illusive mix that will stabilize this disruptive phenomenon. Ironically, upping the work ethic on dilemmas only seems to give birth to new ones, a sorcerer’s apprentice law of dilemma management that runs caregivers ragged. Now what?
The first rule of dilemma management is to reset expectations. There are no final, elegant solutions, just the dance with complexity. Unlike problems, win-win is not part of dilemma management, which is usually a messy process that requires patience and smaller bursts of sustainability. All of this argues for a different orientation, softer reins, and deeper acceptance. In the end, the predictable dilemmas of aging require a different skill set that is not intuitive but essential for everyone’s well being.
The other element is the deep-seated ambivalence older adults have to unwanted advice. This goes beyond the collision between developmental stages, though that is part of it. There are different psychological forces at work here, present at all ages, but markedly enhanced in the final phase of life. We are talking about ambivalence to change.
Choosing to engage ambivalence head, to tell older adults what and how to change, only intensifies and prolongs resistance. Like dilemmas, overcoming ambivalence to change requires a different set of skills. Instead of provoking resistance, we need to soften ambivalence and make room for the possibility of change. This is not an intuitive strategy or skill, but it can be learned with patience and practice.
This is an interview I did for the Senior Real Estate Institute on January 17, 2013. The topic was communicating with senior housing clients, older adults and adult children. The focus was the two psychological hurdles that have to be considered in working with seniors: developmental tasks combined with ambivalence to change. The goal was to help professionals appreciate the role each of these hurdles and how to partner with them. The audio presentation is a good overview for all professionals in the senior services industry and equally useful for family members caught up in power struggles with aging parents.
Boomers are feeling their age and the pull of life review. It is poetry at its finest as is Dorianne Laux’s magical poem about our swan song.
by Dorianne Laux
Eventually the future shows up everywhere:
those burly summers and unslept nights in deep
lines and dark splotches, thinning skin.
Here’s the corner store grown to a condo,
the bike reduced to one spinning wheel,
the ghost of a dog that used to be, her trail
no longer trodden, just a dip in the weeds.
The clear water we drank as thirsty children
still runs through our veins. Stars we saw then
we still see now, only fewer, dimmer, less often.
The old tunes play and continue to move us
in spite of our learning, the wraith of romance,
lost innocence, literature, the death of the poets.
We continue to speak, if only in whispers,
to something inside us that longs to be named.
We name it the past and drag it behind us,
bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,
dreams of running, the keys to lost names.
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