Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Language of Care

Few of us are aware of how language affects our everyday interactions with others. The words we speak, our tone of voice, the looks we give and even our body language all communicate loud and clear what we really mean. We all know that in public and even private spaces, common courtesy, once taken for granted, isn’t so common anymore.

When you use endearing words, such as, “I really care about you,” how are you saying the words? And with what intent?  Are you using eye contact? What are tell-tale signs that perhaps you actually do not care as much as you words purport to say? Looking away, speaking gruffly, mumbling, being twitchy or restless all indicate your mind may be elsewhere. A frown or grimace can give you away, as can arms folded tightly across your chest—you really aren’t very sincere. Or worse, if you take an argumentative tone, it could show you may not care at all!

Care talk is a gift we can bring to others, and entails a number of simple rules. How many of these do you follow when you interact with your loved one?
  • Give the person your full attention—recognition of another person opens the door to real communication. When possible, interact on a face-to-face basis when talking with a person with dementia or severe debilitation.
  • Speak in a tone of voice that is appropriate for the person and the situation. Low tones fit when you’re speaking to a person who hears well. You may need to speak louder and enunciate more clearly for someone who is hearing-impaired or in a crowded room.
  • Use nurturing words that invite the other to respond. “May I help you” can be far more pleasing to a disabled person than “I can do this for you.”  The “may I” phrase allows the other an opportunity to say “no” in a gracious way.
  • Emphasize words that encourage, inspire, support, soothe, hearten or elevate the mood of your ill relative. You can easily stifle a response when you push for an agenda with “must,” “should,” or “have to” words. “You’d better go to your physical therapy appointment today” has a discouraging ring. (Could something bad happen if I don’t go?) What about: “You get to go to your physical therapist today.” This is an opportunity waiting to happen.
  • Be aware of your gestures, voice and facial expressions. If you mean what you say, say it with conviction and certainty. Let your gestures reinforce your message. If you are bringing bad news—“Dr. Smith thinks you will need surgery in a few months”—extend your arms, speak with warmth and sympathy and be ready to embrace your loved one.
  • Practice compassion—feeling with your loved one if they are suffering—and the care words will come effortlessly. Let the milk of human kindness flow through you. When you act from the heart, you are always on target.
You might keep in mind advice from the ancient sage Lao Tzu, who said: “I have three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” When you apply these words to caregiving, your load lifts and your spirit soars.

From my book, The ABCs of Caregiving: Words to Inspire You, House of Harmony Press, 2013. Get your copy now.