For seniors recovering from surgery, illness or injury, short-term stays in rehab facilities are sometimes necessary. Such stays can be difficult — not only for your elderly parent, but also for you.
It's not easy for seniors undergoing care. They don't feel well, they miss home and they've temporarily lost freedom. And although you naturally want to stay cheerful and positive, it can be emotionally taxing on you to see your aging parents in their most vulnerable moments.
So what can you do to keep your parents' spirits up? What can you say that will lift them, without seeming trite, clichéd or irrationally exuberant? Use these techniques to cheer up your aging parent during his or her rehab stay.
1. Don't say you understand how they feel.
Many people say things like this, often with the good intention of acknowledging the other person's feeling. But you're not the one in rehab. You don't understand how your parent feels, because every person interprets and experiences circumstances differently.
Understand the difference between sympathy and empathy. You can empathize (acknowledge the feelings of another) with a person who is recovering from an injury or illness, but to sympathize (experience the same feelings as another) requires you to be subject to the same set of circumstances.
Illness can become dehumanizing. Aging parents might worry about the burden they feel like they have placed upon the family. They might feel like people could get on better without them. They might feel angry, sad or embittered by their inability to help themselves.
It's important that we show them that they are not useless or burdens, but valued family members. So what should you say?
2. Sometimes, you don't need to say anything at all.
Sometimes, it's enough just to be there in the room, to visit and, in so doing, help your parent feel connected to loved ones.
A recovering parent might just want to have a renewed sense of normalcy. Watching TV together, discussing the events of your day, talking about the goings-on in and around Cincinnati, reminiscing about happy family times together, telling jokes — all of these can help keep your parent's mind off of his or her illness. They'll also help you mask any distress you might feel at seeing your loved one in the hospital.
The best thing you can do? Let your parent know that you’re available to listen. Sometimes it helps a person just to be able to vent a little.
3. Validate the person — not the condition.
In her article, "10 Things to Say to a Sick Friend," psychologist Elvira G. Aletta suggests that the kindness of letting an ill friend know that you value and are thinking about him or her can do more to lift spirits than anything else.
She recommends affirmations and simple gestures such as:
"I don't know what to say, but I care about you."
"I saw these flowers and thought they'd cheer you today."
"You are amazing."
In each of these cases, emotional wellbeing is placed in focus, rather than the illness or injury. Note what's not asked here: "I was just wondering how you're feeling today?"
How would someone answer such a question? "Great, thanks”?
Of course not. It puts them in the uncomfortable position either of having to recount how terrible they probably feel, of having to gloss over the truth or having to out-and-out lie.
If you want to cheer up an aging parent who is staying in a short-term rehab facility, leave out talk about how he or she is physically feeling. Just be there to lend a loving presence.
Find out what your parent needs and work to make it happen. Don't allow your emotions to become the focus of the visit — remember, you are there to cheer him or her up, not to vent your own feelings.