The hard questions (For caregivers)
As we extend ourselves into the lives of elderly persons, we’re bound to come to the point of needing or wanting to ask hard questions—about car keys, end-of-life matters, ongoing well-being or submerged feelings. This entry includes some observations about how to frame and offer those questions effectively and lovingly.
What might make a question “hard”: Our anticipation that the question will be difficult to answer and therefore unwelcome. Instead, it might help to approach these situations in the spirit of “*appreciative inquiry”—a positive, strengths-based view of human interactions. (See end note.) Instead of adopting a problem-solving mindset, we can come to these moments with the expectation that we are allowing for hopeful truth to be released and our relationship strengthened.
Offering the questions
While respecting boundaries that the older adult names or implies, we might:
• Be willing to risk the unintended effects of our emotional or intellectual honesty.
• Allow moments of quiet.
• Eliminate apologetic prologues or epilogues.
• Keep the tone light, perhaps inserting humor into the experience.
• Use everyday language, avoiding psycho-babble.
• Start with open-ended questions that invite more than yes/no answers. For example, “What comes to mind when you think about (subject at hand)?” or “What are some of the things you like about (subject at hand)?”
• Use responses to craft further questions. For example, “How have you come to feel/think that way?” or “(In this matter), what do you hope will/won’t change?”
• Keep our positive feelings easily recognized.
• Review what we have heard, so that the older adult knows we understand.
• Think of each conversation as part of a continuing exploration of shared thoughts.
Taking an appreciative, positive approach makes a good outcome more likely: We can develop a new level of intimacy in our relationships with the older adults we love.
*First formulated by Drs. David Cooperrider (Case Western University) and Dianna Whitney (Saybrook University), appreciative inquiry is an approach to planning, coaching and other interactive processes that starts with the underlying assumption of appreciation, admiration or esteem on the part of the inquirer. Closely aligned with “asset-based” approaches to life work.