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Building Relationships

I received a call from Joe, a polite man in his 50’s, asking for help with his parents.  He & his sister, Shirley, were concerned that their parents were struggling and not able to manage their household as well as before.  They couldn’t determine the extent of the problem, as their parents are very private and rarely acknowledge that they have any problems. The parents, Doris and Murray, were also very proud people who had been independent for years, and still felt that they could handle things on their own. It took a good deal of cajoling on the part of Joe & Shirley to get their parents to agree to have a social worker visit through Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Aging in Place-Care management program. Joe & Shirley had to promise that they would be present at the meeting and that no changes would take place without their permission.

Establishing a rapport and good social worker/client relationship with older people, can sometimes be a challenging task and often takes skill and patience.  Older people can be wary of ‘professionals’ coming into their home and they fear that unwanted changes to their lifestyle will be made.  They can also be distrustful of outsiders’ motives and don’t easily share personal information about their lives, history and family. Financial concerns also come into the mix and further raise their antennas.

Our challenge, as social workers and care managers, is to enter this type of relationship with our eyes open and sensitive to the feelings and needs of our senior clients.  We need to be respectful of their values and views, and gently work towards forging a trusting relationship. During that process, we do our best to maintain the clients’ dignity and, as is appropriate, to allow them to make their make their own choices. We also try to be mindful to work at a pace that they can tolerate and with which they are comfortable. During our first meeting, we assure clients that we are not there to make big changes in their lives or strip them of their independence but rather to support and assist them in remaining as independent as possible and maintaining their lifestyle.

As for Doris & Murray, they were guarded and apprehensive at first.  Although they were kind and friendly, one could sense a certain level of discomfort and unwillingness to open up. We sat together for some time, as I explained my role and wanting to get to know them and understand their specific situation and concerns. I also tried to help them understand that I wanted to provide them with assistance and support but only if they wanted it too. It became clear that they were very fearful of what the future might hold for them and of not having control over their lives and decisions.  It seemed cathartic for them to be able to express their fears and concerns, to have someone outside the family network just listen and validate their feelings. They began to gradually open up more and share personal information about their lives, routines and struggles, as well as their rich history and family life and the things that have given them joy and a sense of accomplishment throughout the years.  The relationship was off to a good start and I sensed that they were allowing me to enter their lives and could possibly be open to the help I was offering.

Sheri Bald, LCSW, Jewish Family and Children's Service of Monmouth County
Aging in Place- Care Management Program, 732-774-6886
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