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9 tips for senior caregivers to ease communication with families

Feb. 22, 2019

As a key point of contact between families and their loved one, paid senior caregivers play an important role besides providing care: They must be a good communicators. And that can be one of the toughest parts of the job.

Disagreements between family members, the care recipient and even caregivers themselves often fall on the caregiver to work out. But with your training and outsider’s perspective, you may also be the one best equipped to tackle issues that arise.

“It is the paid caregiver’s responsibility to decrease the stress by providing information within the scope of their training and credentials,” says Alicia Fenstermacher, corporate director of Community Life at Presbyterian Senior Living in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania.

Being a good communicator is a critical attribute for any caregiver, ensuring a smoother, happier experience for the person receiving care, as well as their family. Here are nine tips that you can use to keep the lines of communication open from day one.

1. Put the individual first

There shouldn’t be any question that your first responsibility as the paid caregiver is to the person that you are providing care to.

“If an individual is able to make decisions for their own care, they should be honored, heard and empowered to do so,” Fenstermacher says. “If an individual cannot make all decisions and needs support, we should encourage them to make as many decisions as they can. For example, if an individual wants to wear pajamas to dinner, then they should... Encouragement, honor and respect will win most battles in the long term.”

2. Decide on a family point person

Issues can quickly crop up if you try to communicate with multiple family members on a regular basis, which is why families should choose a representative.

“I suggest asking the family to choose who this point person is, but often they self-identify,” says Star Bradbury, of Senior Care Strategies in Gainesville, Florida. “It never works to have numerous people giving various directions to the caregiver, some of which may be plain old confusing, or worse, conflicting! Nor is it fair to ask the caregiver to repeat information to multiple family members. It is also not their job to be liaison between family members.”

3. Instill trust

Many communication issues can be solved simply by having a relationship built on mutual trust.

“Caregivers can instill trust in their patients and their families by being honest, dependable, prompt, caring, respectful and open to conversation,” Fenstermacher says.

4. Choose your preferred communication methods

Different families will want to communicate with their loved one’s caregiver in different ways, so it’s important that you discuss their preferred methods early on.

“Depending on the care schedule, they could send a daily group text or maybe an update three times a week,” Bradbury says. “With one family I know, the daily caregiver sent a quick text to the daughter every morning, as both a ‘time clock’ reassurance to the daughter that she was there, and a three to four sentence update about how mom was doing that day.”

Be sure to ask what kind of information is most important to family members.

5. Keep a care journal

Lakelyn Hogan, gerontologist and caregiver advocate at Home Instead Senior Care, recommends caregivers keep a written record of activities.

“It can be helpful to have a care journal that everyone has access to,” she says. “The professional caregiver can keep a record of the care being provided and the family caregivers can review the journal regularly. This helps to create transparency and allows for better communication.”

Consider sending a weekly email to family members to accomplish similar goals.

6. Embrace technology

Tech tools like Skype, Zoom and Facebook make it easier than ever for families to communicate with their loved one and their caregiver.

“All of these programs allow for the family to see mom or dad and have both a sense of connection and a virtual feel for mom or dad’s real health condition or state of mind,” Bradbury says. “In a perfect world, this would be likely once a month and include all the family members.”

7. Watch your language

Caregivers should avoid using language that is full of medical jargon, Fenstermacher says.

“For instance, we wouldn’t use the word ‘ward’ to specify someone we are supporting and caring for,” she says. “We would use the person’s preferred name. We wouldn’t talk about the clinical procedure of caring for a wound if the person listening does not have a full understanding of the anatomy and scope of a wound. We would be prepared to explain it so they understand the procedure, and might need to bring visual aids, such as a video or photo. We might need to demonstrate the care and have them in return demonstrate understanding.”

8. Set healthy boundaries

Although it’s natural to develop close feelings for someone you care for every day, it’s important for paid caregivers to maintain healthy boundaries with the families they work with.

“They have not lived the lives the family members have had with the individual,” Fenstermacher says. “They do not know the history and need to respect the history they do not know. They should not share their own personal biases or preferences.”

9. Call in a mediator

If disagreements get to a point where you feel unable to manage them, it’s a good idea to call in reinforcements. Look for mediators to help facilitate the conversation by contacting your local Area Agency on Aging or Bar Association.

Read next: How much should you charge as a senior caregiver?

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