Hospice professionals: He’s an Invalid Now. Really?

Words have power - handwriting on a napkin with cup of coffee
Words have power – handwriting on a napkin with cup of coffee

“He’s an invalid now.” These words were uttered by a hospice caregiver. I can’t recall  I heard this comment, but it wasn’t all that long ago.  Now, I haven’t used the word invalid to describe a person probably since I was a kid who didn’t know better.  The culture change movement has generated a lot of discussion about words we use to describe people over a “certain age”.  (That’s me- yikes!)

Language matters:

Elder versus elderly. Community instead of nursing home. Care partner instead of caregiver.  Person rather than patient. Older adults versus senior citizens.  I’m especially sensitive to what eldercare or hospice professionals call people.  I know plenty of these folks and I’m here to tell you they are not invalids.

Think about that word. Invalid. In (without) valid (validity).  Really? That’s like saying “you’re sick, you’re old, you don’t matter anymore.” Curious, I looked online to see if this word is still being used much. Webster’s online dictionary tells us that the first recorded use of invalid to describe a “sickly” person was in the early 1700′s. Then I saw something interesting. Webster’s asks people to comment on what prompted them to look up the word. One man commented, “I recently (for the first time) was described as an “invalid” because of my chronic arthritis.” Another said,” They told my wife she was an invalid. She is going for lung transplant.”  New Zealand’s financial assistance program called Work and Income has a benefit called the Invalid Benefit.  So it looks like this term is hanging around.

I can hear some of you saying, oh good grief, Ann, it’s just a word- get over it!. But there is power and energy in words.  When someone is already dealing with major health and life challenges, the last thing he needs is to be “invalidated”.

The person labeled as invalid is still of value; still has relationships; passions; and a life to live. And he can teach the rest of us a little about the grace and grit of our humanity. How’s that for validity?

Why We Must ALL Build a Sphere of Senior Care

urban-parkThe dictionary describes a sphere a place or environment within which a person or thing exists;  a particular social world or stratum of society.  How does this relate to how we approach society’s challenges on caring for our seniors?

I’ve had the great privilege over the years of working with many organizations who serve older adults from community based organizations, churches, eldercare providers and more.  As an advocate for education and training and the needs of society to embrace our aging population and their needs, I see opportunities at every corner.   Building a sphere takes all of these organizations in a community to work together.  Make no mistake – we have BIG challenges ahead.

Baby boomers don’t want to admit it, but the march toward old age is upon us (I’m one of them, so including myself here!).   Collaboration and coordination at all levels within our local communities is a must for building a successful sphere of senior care.  None of us can do it alone.  To make this happen it takes:

  1.  Leadership and Visionaries – those people who see beyond today and know how to pull the champions together for a singular cause.
  2. Education – we vastly overestimate public’s knowledge of age related issues from preparing for old age to chronic illness, understanding services and how we can reach out to our elders and those who care for them.
  3. Teach compassion and understanding to our younger generation, allowing them the privilege of growing up to honor and care for older adults.  Include them not as a bystander, but rather as an integral link in the aging of our world.

Healthy spheres don’t just happen.  Now more than ever, we need to see the growth of rural, suburban and urban communities coming together to address the real issues of aging and how to build a sphere of senior care that ultimately will benefit all.



Senior care: Don’t touch! But why not?


Elders in senior care have something to teach us about the importance of touch. Have you ever comforted a crying baby?  How did you sooth her?  Chances are you held her close, stroking her back while gently rocking her.  We feel naturally drawn to comfort infants with caring touch.  It is through touch that we convey warmth, safety, love and acceptance.

But what about a very old person in senior care? Or someone with advanced Alzheimer’s disease? Are we as willing to comfort with the same touch we offered the baby?   Most likely not.  It seems that in our society, we distance ourselves from elders and our willingness to touch them diminishes.

Fears Keep us From Reaching Out

We live in a culture that deems aging and ill people as “untouchable” in many ways.  An image of a very old body or a person with a disability is not exactly what our culture identifies as desirable and, therefore, touchable.  Many are fearful of touching an old person, saying things like “I’m afraid I might hurt her.”; “I’m afraid if I touch, it will be considered inappropriate.”; “I don’t know how to touch safely.”

Ashely Montegu, author of Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin tells us that “tactile needs do not seem to change with aging– if anything, they seem to increase.”

There is another cultural fear at work here, too– the fear of aging itself.  To touch a frail elder can be like looking in the mirror, while bringing up in us our personal attitudes and beliefs about our own mortality.  This experience can show us things about ourselves as we witness close-up the very raw human condition of aging. In these moments, we have a choice.  We can turn away from our discomfort or we can embrace the opportunity to learn something about our shared journey of growing older.

Touch is one of our most fundamental human needs. It is a need that remains constant for a lifetime.  Although our situation, age and condition may change the need for human contact does not. The need for human touch increases in the search for reassurance, comfort and connection.

Elders in senior care are often deprived of nurturing touch and meaningful physical closeness. Social withdrawal, depression, and emotional distress are the result.  In senior care, touch is certainly a part of necessary care activities– medical treatments, personal care such as bathing and dressing, or mobility.  However the intention of this touch is to complete the task, the doing.  The attention is on the condition or the disease rather than the person being cared for.  Imagine if the caregiver stopped doing for a moment to simply be present with the individual? This is the gift we can offer.

While serving another in this profound way, we serve ourselves as well.  Our fears may soften and we no longer see ourselves as separate from those we care for, but rather a part of a shared experience of giving and receiving.

Senior Care Professionals and Sensitivity to Holiday Stress

young girl is sad and frustrated about christmas so she screams
young girl is sad and frustrated about christmas so she screams

The holiday season is not always holly and jolly for the families that you serve.   It is, in fact one of the most stressful times of the year, especially for family caregivers.  Often feeling overwhelmed and under appreciated,  the period between Thanksgiving and New Year is consistently rated as the most difficult, especially for primary caregivers.

In my work as a family caregiver educator, I would often spend the latter part of October and all of November and December speaking to families about keeping themselves emotionally, physically and spiritually well in preparation for the holiday season.   Learning to deal with stress takes a conscience effort and rethinking how we approach holiday challenges.  Some of these include:

  • Redefine family traditions if needed
  • Balance priorities
  • Learn to say NO – in other words…you can’t do it all
  • Use patience, kindness and understanding when communicating with family members
  • Plan ahead for the health and well-being of your loved one
  • Ask for help!
  • Practice the art of simplicity

As professionals one of our most valuable role during the holidays is to be understanding and empathetic of their stress.   At the same time, encourage them to enjoy the moments with their loved ones and practice some of the suggestions shared above.  Above all, if you can be a calm in the storm, that may be the best gift that family members need.

It’s true that we can’t give something away that we don’t already have.  We can’t pour from an empty cup… help your families keep their cups full this season.  Sometimes just a warm hug, a shoulder to cry or a well stocked chocolate basket may be enough to show them that they are appreciated.

Honor your families, love on your caregivers and help to keep their cups full.  Because to that one person, you may be the world.



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