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8 Insider Tips for Working Effectively with Senior Care Staff

By Christy Turner November 03, 2016 Caregiving

One of the hardest decisions you’ll ever make as a dementia care partner is when to move your parent or partner into memory care. Once the move is done, you next need to know how to work effectively with senior care staff.

The fantasy is that the move goes off without a hitch, and then life just magically gets easier. In my experience, though, that’s about as common as running across a unicorn in the wild.

As a former Memory Care Director, I can tell you that knowing when to make the move, and then actually making the move, are only the first steps in the process. Here are the real insider tips to a successful transition.

Understand the Environment

Memory Care is considered a therapeutic environment, meaning the environment supports not only physical health, but also psychosocial and spiritual wellbeing, as well as having a measurably positive outcome for the resident.

When it comes to Memory Care, that means an environment populated exclusively with people who are cognitively impaired. In practical terms, your parent or partner will be living in a community full of people just like them – forgetful, and at times confused or disoriented.

Because it’s normal for residents to be confused at times, you may walk in for a visit and notice your mom is wearing someone else’s sweater. I assure you, that isn’t due to a lack of staff attentiveness.

Rather, the specially trained staff understands that arguing about ownership is counterproductive; it will be returned to the rightful owner after going through the laundry – and everyone gets to remain happy in the meantime.

We’re All Human – Senior Care Staff Included

What a wonderful world, if we never made a mistake and never had a bad day, right?

The truth is, we don’t know what other people are going through at any given moment. Haven’t we all had the experience of putting on a happy face while our whole world was falling apart? The same is true for care staff.

I’m not advocating for sweeping problems under the rug, but approaching care staff with respect and kindness as you state your concerns will get you much further than when you forget they’re your fellow travellers in life, doing their best in any given situation.

Acknowledge Expert Status

Memory Care staff should be specially trained in dementia. If not already experts, they should at least be more knowledgeable than you, while steadily working their way toward expert status. That’s why you turned to them in the first place, right?

However, you will always be the expert on your parent or partner! Run far, far away from any care staff or community that doesn’t understand that, because it’s equally important that the staff recognize your area of expertise. This should be a reciprocal relationship.

Speak Up!

If you don’t understand what’s going on, why a certain treatment is being recommended, or anything else – you must speak up. My Talking To Professionals Guide covers this in more detail, including scripts to use and a template for doctor appointments. Not only do you deserve to be in the loop, your parent or partner is counting on you to act as their advocate.

Don’t tolerate a “you just need to trust us” attitude from staff without a thorough explanation of something you don’t understand. If it’s been explained to you and still doesn’t resonate with your gut, speak to the Memory Care Director.

If the issue still isn’t resolved after that, escalate it to the Ombudsman, Adult Protective Services or Department of Human/Social Services in your area. If you’re not sure who to contact, Google “elder abuse + [your geographic location].” What I’ve described above isn’t abuse, but contacting an agency that handles those complaints will quickly get you on track to speaking to the right person to resolve your situation.

Have A Collaborative Mindset

Too often, families can get sucked into an “us vs them” mindset. Besides being counterproductive, it also doesn’t feel very good. Instead, choose to have a collaborative mindset and make it clear to staff that your expectation is you’ll all be working together for the benefit of your parent or partner.

Getting involved in events in the care community, attending their support group, and becoming friendly with the staff all send the signal that you’re part of the community, too.

Be Kind to Yourself

I wish I didn’t even have to say this, but I can hardly count the number of family care partners I’ve worked with over the years who are downright mean to themselves! I’m talking about wonderful people who are consistently kind to everyone else they encounter, but for some reason, almost never to themselves.

When that nasty voice in your head pipes up, telling you that you’re not doing enough, that you deserve to feel guilty for making a placement decision, or that you deserve to feel guilty for not feeling guilty, or whatever it is, stop and ask yourself a few questions.

Would you speak this way to anyone else? Would you use that tone of voice? Would you have the same unrealistic expectations? Would you witness this type of meanness and not stand up for the target of it?

You deserve respect and kindness from everyone you encounter – including you! When you’re not able to give that to yourself, it makes it much harder to pass along respect and kindness to others.

Forgive Yourself

Guilt seems to be the most pervasive emotion around placement. Families tell me they feel they should have done more, they should have known what to do, they should have…. The point is, we can should all over ourselves, and it’s not going to help anything.

I always tell my clients that feelings just are, that I’ll never try to talk them out of their feelings. At the same time, I remember one of the most liberating moments ever in my life was that magical moment when I discovered I could choose how I feel, and for how long I want to feel that way.

Here’s another way to look at the situation: When I was 7, I fell off my bike and landed on my elbow. My parents didn’t take me into the garage and use duct tape to fix my elbow. No, they took me to the emergency room so an orthopedic expert could fix my elbow.

In my book, that means I had good parents! So why do we beat ourselves up and feel guilty when we aren’t an expert in everything, when we’re seeking expert help? I don’t know the answer, but I do know it’s not helpful.

You may not realize how your guilt affects your parent or partner’s care, but in my experience, it does. It comes out as second-guessing care staff, anger over little things, and a general air of no one else being able to do anything right. That makes delivering great care more challenging. I write about this here.

Choose Your Focus

My mom had a sunflower figurine in the bathroom for as long as I can remember. It’s a happy face on a sunflower; on the base it says, “Let’s be happy where we are.” You can imagine what we were encouraged to focus on as children, right?

Mom and I recently had a challenging, shall we say, travel experience. One of the great lessons I drew from the experience was that I could choose gratitude for the things that worked out rather than dwell on everything that didn’t.

When you choose to focus on what’s going right, on having an attitude of gratitude, the whole world does start to look different – in a good way. This takes practice, but it’s a skill worth developing if you haven’t already.

The biggest bonus of choosing to focus on the positive, of believing that the care staff can deliver the care your parent or partner needs, is it allows you to receive the gift of being “just” the daughter or “just” the spouse. And isn’t it about time you got to do that?

What’s worked for you when it comes to collaborating with senior care staff? Do you have a hot tip for working effectively with care staff? Have you let go of guilt? What helped you let go? Share your experience in the comments and let’s continue the conversation!

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The Author

Christy Turner is the founder of and has enjoyed the privilege of working with 1,123 people living with dementia and their families.

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