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Communicating meaningfully with seniors

At In Great Company, we regularly organise virtual catch ups with our volunteer community, inviting them to share stories, connect, feel inspired, and maybe even have some fun. In our September session, we invited Linda Bell, a Mental Health Clinician and one of our lovely volunteers, to talk about some practical tips and advice on providing support, care, and guidance to seniors in their time of need.

A lot of the time, volunteers find themselves in a situation where they are unsure about communicating and engaging effectively with their senior client. This uncertainty may happen at any stage of a volunteer's journey, for instance, when a volunteer has just started or when their senior client might be going through a challenging time. We summarised the key takeaways and ideas to use when tackling these road bumps.

Setting up to have meaningful conversations

The first impression is a lasting impression. When reaching out to a client for the first time, it is really about “breaking the ice" and building rapport.

  • The initial interactions are introducing yourself over the phone and then again in person. It is important to be patient, open-minded, clear, and honest about who you are.

  • Have a plan about what you are willing to share. Being genuine will be reassuring to your client.

  • Actively listen to understand and acknowledge uncertainties.

  • Be reliable and follow through on your word. This will help to establish trust in your relationship with them.

  • Be flexible and willing to work with your client’s existing routine. It can be quite hard for clients to adapt to change.

  • When connecting by phone shorter, more frequent 15-20 minute conversations are better, than one long call.

  • Be mindful of hearing difficulties, miscommunication, and non-verbal cues. Ask your client to repeat sentences or paraphrase to clarify and prevent misunderstanding.

Building rapport

Being prepared can help relieve the tension when initially meeting or trying to build a relationship with a client during subsequent meetings.

  • Be curious and have some prompting questions ready to show that you are genuinely interested in your client and their life. For instance,

  • Where did you grow up?

  • What did you do for entertainment as a younger person?

  • How did you meet your partner?

  • What would you rate as the greatest invention? How did it change your life?

  • Find common interests like gardening, fishing, playing cards, puzzles or history, that you may be able to share together.

  • Find and validate the strengths in your client’s response to your questions.

  • Be open to learn.

Navigating difficult conversations

Later in life when clients no longer have goals to achieve or things to look forward to, they tend to reflect. They look at their legacy and try to find the significance of their life. Quite often when talking to an older person, they may bring up stories that are distressing or can be quite repetitive. It can be helpful to:

  • Remember that all stories have meaning - find the meaning behind their stories.

  • Find the positive strength or value in the story that your client has shared. Reframe the story highlighting these strengths.

  • Acknowledge their resilience.

  • Be aware of your own emotions. Although you may be hearing the story for the first time, your client may have already made peace with the situation.

  • Reassuring a client helps them feel safe. For example, even if a client may not request confirmation that you are vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test, providing this information can give them peace of mind especially when dealing with the ever-changing environment.

  • Find out about your client’s current values, what is important to them can shift the conversation back towards them, to help them realise what they essentially need to feel better.

  • Demonstrating empathy and compassion for past lived experiences can foster trust and honesty within your friendship.

Grounding exercises

Having a conversation with an older person about past lived experiences can evoke certain emotions within us. Grounding exercises can be a helpful tool to bring clients into contact with the present moment – the “here and now." These can be quick and mindful strategies such as:

  • Deep breathing exercises and short meditations

  • Taking stock of what’s different today from that experience, how have things improved

  • Giving thanks or gratitude for today

  • Reminding them that they are safe

Remember that different strategies work for different clients, and there is no “wrong” way. The main aim to is bring your client back to the present and regulate their emotions before you leave them.

If you do have any concerns about a client’s emotional state it is important to direct them to the volunteer team at In Great Company for support and guidance.

If you'd like to become a volunteer with In Great Company and make a senior's life less lonely, you can do so here.

Young man and senior man fishing

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