In my professional life I have worked with elders and trained many caregivers in different facilities, and yet when my father fell right before Thanksgiving and fractured his hip and arm, not only my worldview shifted about the true meaning of caregiving as his daughter, but also my awareness of what caregivers attempt to do daily for their residents. Below are a few of the things I learned during this experience that enriched my life in unexpected ways.
1) The Story Behind the Individual
“I am a human being, not just a broken person! I can hear, I am aware and I deserve to be part of these conversations.” Those were the first words my father told me when I went to visit him the day after his surgery. From the moment my 86-year-old father arrived in the emergency room, through the surgery and transfer process to the rehab facility, doctors, nurses, specialists, transport staff, and others all chose to speak around him rather than with him about what was going on. As people came and went they looked at his chart, checked out his vital signs and moved on to the next patient. More than anything he wanted them to “see him” and know that he was worried and frightened, and wanted someone to answer his questions directly. What he needed more than anything was to be seen, heard, understood, and treated as a unique individual who had a full life before he arrived at the rehab facility.
2) Building Trust
Compassionate caregiving depends on our ability to build a trusting relationship with those we advocate for, by empathizing and understanding what they are experiencing based on their perception and reality, not ours. That includes being sensitive to sharing personal information and being honest with them, examining our cultural biases, and ensuring their sense of dignity. By building trusting relationships with the staff it created a positive bond between them and my father. I learned their names, validated their caregiving efforts and shared my gratitude for their attentiveness.
3) Deep Listening
Compassionate caregiving requires more than reading charts or giving medications. As his advocate I learned quickly that he was not expecting me to take over but to listen deeply to his concerns. To accurately assess what he needed required patience and taking time to hear him rather than assuming I knew what was best for him. Elders who are asked to make complex decisions quickly and without guidance and inquiry about their wishes, may feel confused, frustrated and isolated. Regardless of the situation, it’s essential to make the time to listen without judgment.
4) Caregiving with Dignity and Respect
Compassionate caregiving depends on our ability to embody a sense of empathy for what our elders are experiencing at the moment. Our conversations and care need to be based on their reality not ours. I truly believe that we can make a conscious choice to stay present and mindful as we communicate with the people who depend on us regardless of their abilities. I noticed a difference in my father’s emotional state of being when the support staff made time to ask questions about his life, things that were meaningful to him and what brought him joy. One day during our visit, he told me that he could handle the challenges he was facing physically and emotionally with grace and patience when he felt supported and not have people laugh at him because he was not able to perform simple tasks. He chose to let the staff know how that made him feel rather than stay angry and resentful. They in return recognized the impact of their actions and words, apologized and ended up having a meaningful conversation about how to communicate better so they can help him accomplish his goals. Discovering this common ground shifted our family’s perspective about the challenges caregivers have to face as they try to keep a balance between dealing with a demanding job and practicing mindful caregiving with the utmost dignity and respect.
5) Small Acts of Kindness!
At the end of the day what my father remembers most, regardless of the pain and stress of being away from home, are the small acts of kindness from the staff. Things like bringing a warm blanket to him, using lotion after noticing how dry his skin was during the healing process, remembering his favorite treat, asking how he felt after a difficult night, being patient and celebrating with him with each small success.
6) Shift in Perspective, Change of Heart
This experience reinforced what we learn in our Conscious Aging program. We do have the ability to be the authors of our own life journey, the capacity to live life consciously and intentionally, and to find a sense of balance between the challenges of aging and the beauty of becoming an elder. I quickly learned what it means to be an advocate and a caregiver for someone you love while keeping an open mind and the willingness to face each challenge with clarity and persistence. Getting to know the staff and working closely with them, contributed to the change in their interactions with my father, and shifted my worldview and assumptions of what happens and what is needed in our healthcare facilities. I also recognize how important it is for families to advocate for loved ones by building strong and healthy relationships with their caregivers, having a clear plan, and actively engaging during the healing process as much as possible. Learning to be compassionate is much more than taking a course. It’s a way of life and a way of being – not because it’s our job but because we truly care. My heart is filled with gratitude as I watch my father grow each day and I look forward to the day he comes home.
As people experience the richness and beauty of our Conscious Aging program they learn how to turn challenges into opportunities for growth. This has been the case for me as part of a personal journey that allowed me to reflect both as a practitioner and a daughter about what is required to be a compassionate caregiver. I am grateful for this invaluable gift and my wish is to share it with you wherever you might be on your journey.
About the Author
Katia Petersen, PhD, is an author and recognized training expert in school improvement strategies, and integration of social-emotional and academic learning. Her work includes leadership and staff coaching, student and teacher support, as well as parent engagement and community involvement. She has delivered professional development in schools nationwide and to date, Dr. Petersen has trained over 65,000 educators and thousands of parents to enhance school success. Katia utilizes collaborative dialogue to arrive at solutions and action plans with all stakeholders. She has been a visiting professor at the Stanford University School of Education (SUSE), and lecturer at the University of Minnesota.