It happened again. Gwen had just gotten settled for lunch, and turned her attention to the background music I was playing. She gave me an appreciative little round of applause at the end of “Till We Meet Again.” I knew the sentimental ballad about wartime separation was one of her favorites. Then, like clockwork, Gwen’s visitor arrived and joined her and her three assisted-living tablemates. The four elderly women were all sitting ducks for what came next.
I started noticing the pattern about six months ago. The visitor, a woman in her mid-60s, sits down and begins a monologue:
Well, I’m giving myself a big birthday party this year because…
He asked me if I wanted to go along and I said…
And then my daughter’s boyfriend came by and…
I, me, my. She holds court—with a captive audience—for the entire hour I’m there. Gwen is allowed few openings to speak, so mostly smiles and nods, grins and bears it. I can’t figure out the relationship between the two. It doesn’t appear to be daughter/mother. I guess it’s talker/designated listener. These one-sided “conversations” remind me of a line from the 1988 movie Beaches, delivered by Bette Midler’s character: “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”
I see this monopolizing behavior all the time. Visitors try to entertain by talking about themselves, when it would be so much better to enter the residents’ world for a bit, keep them company, show an interest in their lives, past and present. Listen more than talk.
When I think about the importance of listening, an experience I had in a dementia unit several years ago comes to mind. The staff had parked about a dozen residents around the piano. Among them was a woman with wild white hair, who sat in her wheelchair staring vacantly. I began my program with a gentle waltz, “Let the Rest of the World Go By.” Surprisingly, she began talking. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. It sounded like the same thing over and over, but no one was responding, so she grew louder, and more and more agitated. Her behavior infuriated a man sitting near her, who yelled “Shut up” repeatedly. Nearby aides ignored his verbal abuse. (I had seen this before. Staff members seem to rarely involve themselves in scuffles between residents.) After a couple of songs, I stopped playing and went over to her, hoping to soothe her in some way. It was then that I figured out what she had been saying all along: “Can I shake your hand?”
Such a simple request, so easily met. All I had to do was listen.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.