I may be slow, but I am not dumb!

Communicating with the Elderly

Dr. Biju Raghavan, Ernakulam

“I may be slow, but I’m not dumb”, said Mrs. Sharada (name changed), as she admonished her grandchildren, who were enjoying some good natured amusement at her expense.

Mrs. Sharada nevertheless had a smile on her face because she realises that it was becoming increasingly rare for her, to have her children and her grandchildren visit her these days.

You see, Mrs. Sharada was living independently in her huge house with the support of a home nurse and a domestic help since her husband’s passing. All of her three children, were well educated and lived in Bengaluru and the United States of America. This meant that she had very limited visitors with whom she could engage in a conversation with.

While the COVID-19 pandemic raged outside her and created havoc in everybody’s lives, there was a silent pandemic – a pandemic of loneliness raging within her.

Mrs. Sharada’s children had provided her with a smart phone so that she could video chat with anyone she pleased. What they unfortunately did not realize was that, though today’s technology is a child’s play for them or their children, the phone was actually a challenge and a barrier for her to connect with people. Her well intentioned family failed to realise that with advancing age, Mrs. Sharada was finding it difficult to operate the phone, or for that matter, was finding it tough to even hold the phone properly as her hands were not steady as they once used to be.

The Palliative Home Care team’s visit from our center, was something she’d look forward to eagerly.

In addition to monitoring her physical issues, our team of Nurses and a Social Worker ensured that they spent some time with her during each of these visits. Most oftenly, our team listened and created a safe space for Mrs. Sharada to talk to her heart’s content. It was only when she offered to pay someone to only come and talk to her everyday, did we understand the intensity of her desperation for human contact.

Most of us, usually think of communication related difficulties that are associated with the elderly to be based on their physical debilities like failing eyesight, loss of hearing, the slurring of speech due to a stroke or loss of memory in Dementia. These are important and obvious barriers to communication with the elderly. However, the devastating impact of loneliness is becoming a barrier to Communication that needs to be addressed too.

Loneliness has the impact to cripple and ultimately destroy the soul of the elderly, leading to emotional and existential angst.

It is of no use to blame the children and their families who migrate to different geographical locations to earn an income and provide for their families. Like any other social problem, the solution for this too, needs to evolve organically from within the society.

I therefore ask you,

  • Would you consider spending some time, or donate even a little of your time, to provide companionship to an elderly who lives within a walking distance of your home?
  • Would you consider running small errands for these assets in the community as they find it increasingly difficult to step out of their homes?

These simple acts of ours, will go a long way in empowering them and reducing their anxiety and halt the loss of their confidence.

There is no doubt, that we as a community will also learn a lot in return, as they have valuable life lessons to share. Do remember that with advancing age, the thinking slows down. The processing of information takes time and the articulation becomes laboured and sometimes even repetitive. Be patient.

Following the steps of Mrs. Sharada’s grandchildren, we may also sometimes feel exasperated and end up making an unkind remark; and when you feel that way, remember Mrs. Sharada’s words “I may be slow, but I’m not dumb”.

About the Author: Dr. Biju Raghavan is a Senior Consultant at the Department of Pain and Palliative Medicine at Rajagiri Hospital in Ernakulam, Kerala..

Leave a comment