America is aging. In fact, every day, ten thousand people turn 65, or more than 400 every hour. People are also living longer, which makes age-related chronic illnesses more likely. For those who live with or interact with older adults on a regular basis, it’s important to know how to best support their journey.

More programs are emerging to teach those caring for a loved one how to detect behaviors that might reflect mental health or dementia issues, and how to compassionately respond and connect older adults to resources.

Stay Connected to the Seniors in Your Life

Faye Mitchell, Branch Manager for one of Kindred at Home’s licensed personal caregiving agencies, regularly speaks to groups on how to connect with older adults through a program called Detect and Connect. The program is part of a partnership with the Aging Action Initiative in Marin, California.

“Being out in the community, I realized we come across so many people who work with seniors but have little or no experience with some of the things like dementia that seniors are dealing with,” Mitchell said. “I’ve often seen people being treated in a way that’s not effective, or even unfair, because the person dealing with them just doesn’t understand.”  

Mitchell said her goal is to dispel myths about aging, dementia and mental health issues that can lead to neglect or abuse. She focuses on tools to frame interactions in a positive light by acknowledging that people living with chronic illness have a different reality rather than viewing them as though they have a problem or disease. The program focuses on four main topics.

Understanding Normal vs. Abnormal Aging Behavior

Mitchell breaks down age-related myths about older adults, such as having a poor memory, becoming crankier or experiencing personality changes.

“We break down that there really is no normal – everyone is different,” Mitchell said. “I feel like seniors get discriminated against a lot, and that’s why I’m passionate about being in this field.”

Identifying Symptoms and Observable Behaviors

Mitchell said most symptoms of dementia and mental health are not expressed through words, but through non-verbal behavior, like looking distressed or confused, and the way people say something through their tone of voice.

“For instance, if you were to ask someone the date, it’s not so much that they don’t know it, but that they have to look at the calendar,” Mitchell said. “If you ask them a question they should know the answer to, but they get irritated, it’s a clue that maybe they don’t know and it’s embarrassing.”

Responding with Empathy and Compassion

Mitchell explains the importance of listening more than talking and then repeating what you think you’ve heard to make sure you got it right. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to respond, but with empathy, rather than sympathy.

“You’re not pitying someone if you’re feeling empathy with them, which makes a huge difference when seniors are being cast down,” Mitchell said. “The last thing they need is someone feeling sorry for them – that makes it worse.”

Connecting Older Adults with the Right Resources

There are many national organizations that help older adults and their loved ones navigate the healthcare journey, such as:

It can be especially taxing on family members who are the primary caregiver for an aging loved one.

“Be kind to yourself. The biggest problem that happens is when a caregiver gets frustrated being around a senior,” Mitchell said. “That frustration is so hurtful and damaging to the relationship. They already feel awful because they’re changing, and now they feel worse. So you’ve got to check that in yourself to not bring it around the other person.”  

What are some ways you connect and engage with seniors in your life? Share with us in the comments.

By Blair Klayko