In the past 10 days, 3 women over the age of 70 have dropped the F-bomb while talking to me. Yep.
And that made me think more about one of the very struggles and frustrations I have always had while working in elder care – balancing “being real” with being “professional.” While talking last week to a colleague, she said that one of the obvious expectations while working in corporate America is that you have a personal life and a work life and the two should not mingle.
Do organizations that provide elder care focus too much on this as well? Has it gotten too corporate? The philosophy that is advocated for these days is “person-centered care.” Providing person centered care and engagement requires an intimacy, a knowing of the person you are working with. The only way to really have this knowing is by being transparent yourself. And if you are expending your energy (wasting it I might add) on trying to be your “work” self, the result is a distancing from the person you are trying to get closer to. Intimacy is the primary thing we all crave, that makes us feel valued and whole. If professionalism suggests that we leave part of our real self at home, we are missing a part of our self while interacting at work and we are not whole. We lose the opportunity to be truly authentic and connected with those around us.
In 1997 I was working in a hospital, primarily with people who had some type of neurological “injury” – at the time that was maybe 50% had a stroke which put much of the population I worked with over 65. I had an eye brow ring and punked out short blond hair. That eyebrow ring was an incredible touch point. It created conversation and intimacy that I would have had no other way to create. It made people laugh, get angry, fear for my future, ask questions, counsel me, become intrigued but most of all it was a way we really connected. One day I ran into the CEO in the hallway. He asked me to take out my ring…because it was “unprofessional.” I was so bold, I said “not until it’s in the employee handbook.” For two reasons – one, I was a bit of a rebel but the second was because I knew that that simple social rebellion and self-expression (in ’97 not every kid had a facial piercing) connected me with SO many people in an interesting way. I simply didn’t care about “professionalism,” I cared about realism and connecting with other humans as I was. The result: I was good at my job and really well-liked.
That thing which was different and edgy helped to create intimacy and connection. That “thing” wasn’t who I was but it was an outward expression of who I was and it provoked curiosity. Self-expression – physically, verbally, energetically, makes us all interesting and unique. Respecting another does not require us to stop self-expressing… this includes while we are working with elders.
What I have in fact found is that when I am real, raw, honest, opinionated, creatively expressive – that is when people feel open and connected to me – particularly elders!! When I am focused on how I am dressed and acting “appropriately,” I miss so many opportunities – the energy I put into monitoring myself is what I could be putting into being present.
Elder care communities that are interesting and engaging are not stuffy. There is laughter, there is debate, there is expression and often messiness mixed in. It’s not about appearances, it’s about experiences. To assume that our elders … who, by the way, are about to be the rowdy, rebellious, bold, outspoken, creative, drug curious, big thinking, opinionated, fascinating crowd from the 60’s … are so easily offended and require a gentle “professional customer service” approach is almost laughable. They want to keep living and feeling and being provoked to think and create. They want interesting activity – and seriously, what is interesting about being proper and dull (that creates distance and a false sense of safety.) And I have found this all along the way even with the stoic generation of elders we have been serving!
Kindness, vibrancy, authenticity and connection are above all what I want if I have to live in an elder care community.
To go back to the F-bomb, I do use “inappropriate language” during my consulting when I sense that we need to cut through the distance and get real. I find it instantaneously wakes up the room and changes the perspective – I become real. I also tell vulnerable, uncomfortable stories when I want a group to feel that I am real and not another “professional” who is separate or above them.
I am not suggesting that you encourage your staff to start integrating bad language into their work routines. But I am suggesting that you consider what level of “professionalism” you would want if you were in an elder care community. I can tell you that the people I know – yes half of my close friends are over 65 – are resistant to living in an elder community because they (and I) fear the lack of real true connection with others. The noise of real conversation, the freedom to do and say what we want, of being exactly who we are, when we want and the fear of going to live like we are living in a hotel with stuffy customer service everyday. I can feel the fear rising! And honestly, like now, I will welcome the good use of “inappropriate” language when it is warranted.
Every person connects in a unique way – elders and staff members. Teaching your team members how to connect in a person-centered way without sharing their drama will give them the freedom to access all of their energy, not wasting it on being professional but using it on being real.