Providing care to older adults can be a highly rewarding activity. Getting to know a senior and hearing his or her stories can illuminate your own life, clarify your values system—and even augment your sense of self.
But no one is free from biases. Society sometimes marginalizes older adults and trivializes their concerns. This can lead even well-intentioned care providers to adopt practices that appear disrespectful, such as disregarding a client’s wishes or denigrating her through word choices.
As a senior care professional, you are in the best position to personally bring dignity and respect into every interaction with a client. This behavior not only benefits the senior client but can help drive desired outcomes. According to Gambrill’s study “Casework: A Competency-Based Approach,” “The clients treated with respect will be more likely to freely discuss difficult topics, explore their own contributions, and involve themselves in a cooperative effort to achieve desired service outcomes.”
Research into how to effectively convey respect to senior clients is scarce, but one 2009 study examined the subject in some detail. Sung and Dunkle’s “How Social Workers Demonstrate Respect for Elderly Clients” , identified 12 ways caregivers can show respect for their clients.
As part of Home Instead, Inc.’s mission of Changing the Face of Aging® , we share four key practices based on Sung and Dunkle’s study that you can adopt to convey respect in every senior client encounter.
1. Words Matter: Showing Linguistic Respect
The way you speak to people matters. Word choices matter. Words can build an intimate relationship—or tear a person down.
When it comes to older adults, care providers can show respect by using specific forms of address that avoid endearments. For example, instead of calling a client “sweetie” or “dear,” consider addressing them with a title and their last name: “Mrs. Smith.” If you receive permission to address a senior by her first name, then feel free to do so.
Keep cultural differences in mind when addressing seniors. In some Asian cultures, for example, respect can be conveyed by addressing the senior by their role, such as ‘mother’ or ‘father,’ rather than by using their first name.
2. The Art of the Greeting: Salutatory Respect
In addition to the words you use when greeting a senior client, you should consider adopting specific body language that conveys your respect. Three ways to do this:
- Rise when your client enters the room.
- Shake your client’s hand each time you meet.
- Maintain eye contact.
If you have previously received permission to greet your client in another manner, such as a hug, this can be a good way to foster trust and strengthen a bond in your professional relationship without being disrespectful.
Remember to honor cultural expectations in terms of gender interactions, physical contact and more. Educate yourself about these aspects of care before you meet with clients from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds.
3. I Hear You: Acquiescent Respect
To acquiesce means to accept, even if you must do so reluctantly. When a senior’s wishes and opinions get brushed aside by family members or care providers, the client may feel as if she doesn’t matter. Conversely, showing acquiescent respect can bolster a client’s sense of self-worth and engage her as a contributing member of the care team.
To demonstrate acquiescent respect to a senior client, you can listen closely to his or her wishes and opinions—and then honor them even if you disagree with them.
Acquiescent respect can be difficult for senior care professionals to practice when their own notion of what’s best for the client differs from the client’s viewpoint. But, in general, you should try to honor your client’s wishes instead of imposing your own beliefs and values on the client, unless the client’s wishes would be detrimental to her health.
For example, perhaps you believe a client would be better off moving to an assisted living facility, but she wants to remain in her home. Instead of pushing her to go along with your rationale, you can show your respect by trying to find a way to honor her wishes to age in place by arranging for a visiting nurse, professional in-home caregiver or other services to accomplish her objectives.
4. Dressed for Success: Presentational Respect
The way you present yourself—in dress and in manners—can profoundly communicate your respect for your older adult clients. As one social worker said in the study, “We need to dress in the way the client’s culture says is appropriate to a helping professional.” This may mean wearing medical scrubs, a lab coat or a business suit, depending on your role in the caregiving continuum.
Your posture also forms the basis of presentational respect. When you present yourself as a caring professional by focusing your attention on your client, taking his hand, maintaining eye contact and asking him sincerely how you can help, you show you respect and value his involvement in the care process.
Practicing the four types of respect listed here can help you convey your esteem to the older adults you interact with. As a senior care professional, you are in an ideal position to help make a difference in the lives of the aging population in North America. Your demonstration of senior respect not only can increase your clients’ feelings of self-worth but can influence those around you to treat seniors with all the respect they deserve.