When people talk about caregiving what they usually mean is providing for physical needs–such as feeding, bathing, and clothing someone. Less often in the talk of caregiving is the focus the emotional aspect of providing care–giving the comfort and encouragement which is so desperately needed when facing illness and frailty. While those two aspects of caregiving steal the show, almost always a third (and key) part of caregiving is overlooked: the need for social connection. The need to listen to the person in our care is a vital part of providing them with a meaningful sense of social well-being.
In the realm of caregiving, there is often a strong emphasis on communication for the purpose of gathering factual information. As caregivers we instinctively understand that we need to ask, “How are you feeling? Do you hurt? Are you hungry? Are you cold?” and many other questions which aim to better understand the physical needs of the person in our care, so that we can answer those physical needs. People are not so quick to recognize how important talking is for the social well-being of the people in our care.
The benefits of social conversation with those in our care were first brought home to me when I was caring for my grandfather during his journey through Alzheimer’s. I did plenty of talking with him in my attempts to take care of his physical needs–I might lose track of how many times in one day I asked “Are you hungry?” or “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Because I spent so much time providing physical care and talking about physical needs, whenever I wasn’t required to do that I would withdraw.
I told myself I was taking care of all his needs, but later I recognized I was overlooking something important; one afternoon on a whim I sat outside on the front stoop with Grandpa and watched the traffic go by. We sat in the sun and chatted about everything and nothing. Afterward, he made some comment about how good it had been, and I felt a little stab of guilt.
In caring for his physical needs I had become so focused on them that I had forgotten Grandpa’s desire to be recognized as a human with social needs–the need to be conversed with, and listened to, just for the sake of conversation and with no greater goal in mind. The human desire to be heard simply because our conversation has value (and for no other reason) is very deep seated.
If we care for people and yet neglect to nourish a conversational relationship the person in our care may be cared for, but they won’t feel very cared about. Social connection is a universal human longing. Answering this social need is an important part of being a caregiver.
I was reminded of this recently when I became involved in the care of a disabled veteran. The veteran suffers from some cognitive issues along with moderate to severe verbal impairment. Because of his neurological issues the young man is not self-mobile or able to perform fine motor tasks. In layman’s terms, he cannot get himself out of bed or effectively feed or shave himself. His physical needs encompass a bed bath, being dressed and hoisted out of bed with a lift, and being fed and shaved. He has significant physical needs–but equally important to this man is simply being heard and understood in conversation. For him to feel that his needs are being met I have to demonstrate that I can understand his communication–about the weather, the current news headlines, clothing tastes, movies, family events, and whatever else might cross his mind. For him, one of his greatest needs is that his verbal impediment not shut down his social interaction with the rest of the world–and a big part of his social world right now is me.
What does this mean? It means that when I give him his morning bath I make sure I carry on a running conversation with him about whatever trivial things he happens to want to talk about. I make sure I recognize his jokes, and tease him in turn. Because of the issues he faces his social circle is very constrained, and for him being heard and valued in a social context is just as important for him as being fed his breakfast. I try to remember this and act accordingly
This desire is true for many people. So when you are caring for someone, in the midst of all your asking about whether they are comfortable, well fed, and not needing to use the bathroom, don’t forget to just sit down and talk with them about life. For someone with dementia it might be the life they once had fifty years ago. For someone else it might be talking with them about their favorite TV show, or teasing them about how they are addicted to Dunkin Donuts coffee. Whatever the exact content of your conversation, recognizing them for who they are as a unique individual and expressing interest in who they are will make them feel not only cared for, but care about.
And that is no small part of being a caregiver.