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Strategies for Communicating With Senior Housing Staff

Martin Schumacher
Oct. 14, 2011

4 techniques to create the ideal relationship with your parents' assisted living caregivers.

Mrs. Simpson's beloved family watch was missing. As a new resident in an Assisted Living community, she became certain an aide took it, so she told her daughter, Betsy.

Betsy was very upset. Riddled with guilt from moving her mother into a new place, she angrily confronted her mother's aide, "How could you steal from a defenseless, old woman? What's wrong with you? Give me that watch back right now or I'll have you fired!"

It turns out that Betsy's mother, who had become increasingly confused in recent months, had simply misplaced her watch. And now Betsy's relationship with her mother's aides was a mess.

Not the best way to create an ally.

There doesn't have to be an event like Betsy's to need a reason for creating a good rapport with senior care staff. Feeling connected to your parent's caregivers is an important step to adjusting to their new home, which is what Betsy was struggling with.

"It is often an emotionally-charged time for a senior and his or her family when a move to a senior care facility happens, particularly if it is sudden and unplanned," says Mary Stehle, LCSW, and Senior Care Advisor at Care.com. "Sometimes," continues Stehle, "these emotions can have a negative impact on our relationships with staff at the care facility."

"But once you get to know their primary caregivers and the administrator, you can feel comfortable talking one-on-one with them about how well your loved one is doing, as well as any concerns you might have," says Chris Cummins, Executive VP for The Haven Assisted Living, Inc.

Even if things do start out poorly, there are a number of tips and techniques family members can use to feel more comfortable in this new setting and to develop a genuine rapport with the staff. The simple truth is that most staff and families have the same goal: the safety, comfort, and dignity of the loved one.

Cummins and Stehle have come up with the following four best practices for creating and sustaining a good rapport with senior housing staff:

1. Get to Know the Care Team

  • Take the time to learn what roles different staff play and what their specific responsibilities are. Depending on the kind of care facility, there may be a wide range of staff -- including an administrator, a director of nursing, a social worker, various therapists, an activity coordinator, charge nurses, as well as paraprofessional assistants or aides, who provide most of the 'hands-on' care. In addition, different care facilities sometimes use different job titles, so it behooves you to make the effort to understand who is who and who does what. Ask questions and take notes. (Get tips on helping your senior have a more active social life)

    "It's all about educating family members, and we try hard to do just that," says Cummins. "But there's only so much we can do. Families need to make an effort -- to ask questions, to get to know a staff member and the administrator -- to really understand this different world they find themselves in."

  • Identify a primary contact at the facility. If you have a chief contact and advocate for your family member your job will be that much easier. They will often be able to address many of your questions and concerns or, if not, then know where to direct you. The obvious choice is a staff member who has daily contact with your family member and is most apt to develop a genuine relationship with him or her.

2. Use Proven Communication Strategies

Good and respectful communication is essential for working effectively with other people. This is particularly true when you're feeling stressed or tense, which is not uncommon when you're concerned about a loved one in a care facility. "Like any relationship", says Stehle, "this one will be a balance of listening and communicating your needs and observations in a manner that can be heard by the staff." If you're courteous and practice good communication skills, nine times out of ten you'll develop a good rapport.

And, fortunately, good communication skills can be developed by anyone; it's not something you're simply born with. Here are several specific tips you can use to help you become a better communicator:

  • Ask Questions
    Another reason problems sometimes arise is that family members are hesitant to ask questions. "It happens all the time," says Cummins. "Families are afraid to ask questions because they fear it will reflect poorly on their loved one, that their loved one will not get the care they deserve, which, of course, couldn't be farther from the truth. The point is we really want families to ask questions, to become educated about our community, and we create all sorts of opportunities for this to happen, but they often don't take advantage of these opportunities," continues Cummins.

    Cummins suggests that family members come prepared. "Think about what it is you need to know and write down your questions beforehand," says Cummins. "So, whether you're in a group setting or one-on-one with your primary contact, you're prepared and can then really focus on the information given to you. The more you do it the easier it gets," concludes Cummins.
  • Practice Active Listening Techniques
    Too often, says Cummins, people don't listen closely to what is actually being said to them (especially if the information is difficult to hear). Instead they're distracted with other thoughts or more concerned about what they're going to say next. If, however, you make a conscious effort to listen and try to understand what is being said, you'll be in a much better position to develop a real rapport with that person.

    Actively listening involves summarizing what the person just told you so it's clear you understand them, show your comprehension, and help create dialogue. It also means putting yourself in their shoes when trying to hear their point of view.
  • Avoid Communication Stoppers
    Most of us already know this, but there are a number of things you simply should avoid saying. These include angry name calling ("that housekeeper is completely incompetent"), blaming ("it's her fault that..."), and giving unheeded advice ("you really should do..."). Instead, frame your concerns with non-threatening phrases like "it concerns me..." or "I understand what you're saying..." or "what if we tried a different approach..."

3. Help Staff Get to Know Your Loved One

Many senior care professionals say that one of the most satisfying aspects of their job is the relationships they develop with the residents in their care. It's very common to hear aides and other staff refer to many of their longer term residents as "family" or a special resident as being "like a grandmother." And for family members this, of course, is what you want to hear -- to know your loved one is cared for by people who know and love them for who they are.

You can help foster this kind of environment by helping the staff get to know your loved one. It's important they learn that, for instance, your dad worked as an engineer, loved to do carpentry, and enjoyed traveling to Europe with his wife -- that he is so much more than just "an Alzheimer's patient."

In addition to talking to staff and providing them with family history, there are other things you can do that help "tell the story" of your loved one's life. For instance, consider putting together a bulletin board or a scrapbook with information about your loved one. It should contain all kinds of things that let staff know about the history of this individual: photographs, letters, awards, journal entries -- anything that highlights your loved one as a person. This bulletin board or scrapbook can be kept in your family member's room and can serve as a great conversation starter for staff or other residents.

4. Show Your Appreciation

And finally, as you get to know the staff and see how they care for your loved one, take a moment to show your appreciation, suggests Stehle. Send a "thank you" card or drop off some treats at the nurse's station. What you do is not so important; the fact you made the effort is. A little gesture can go a long way to bring smiles to people's faces. "Care professionals, like everyone else," says Cummins, "love it when their efforts are recognized and appreciated."

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