Millions of older people in this country are encouraged to continue to live at home for as long as possible. But trapped indoors by mobility or cognitive issues, anxiety, fear or depression, apart from little more than 30 minutes of care twice a day if they are lucky, many face ten or eleven lonely hours in between, often with little to do and no other human contact.
I know a number of people who live like this, a few of whom are also living with the early stages of dementia. It is little short of a sort of genteel solitary confinement. Few of us would want that for our loved ones or ourselves, fewer still would describe it as "care". Yet the numbers are increasing, as care home costs escalate and places diminish.
That's why contact-the-elderly.org.uk is so important. As volunteers, we provide a lifeline of friendship to people once a month, coming together for happy
Sunday tea parties in people's homes, for cake, conversation and community, all across the country.
Please contact the website above if you would be interested to volunteer as a driver or host, or know someone who would benefit as a guest.
I was so moved by this Storify diary from Gwen, which I came across by chance. It exemplifies the experience of many older couples living with dementia. Like we say, a dementia diagnosis is for everyone in the family.
You may well think you are good at listening. Our appraisal of our listening ability is much like our assessment of our driving skills – most of us think we are above average. You may well think that good listening comes down to three things:
Not talking when others are speaking
Letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”)
Being able to repeat what others have said, practically word-for-word
Leadership development consultancy CEO, Jack Zenger writes in the Harvard Business Review that in fact, much management advice on listening suggests doing these very things – encouraging listeners to remain quiet, nodding and mm-hmm-ing encouragingly, and then repeating back to the talker something like, “So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is…”
But now read on... He writes that recent research suggests that these behaviours fall far short of describing good listening skills.
Data describing the behaviour of about 3,500 participants in a development programme designed to help managers become better coaches was analysed.
As part of the programme, the participants'coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. Those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%) were then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set. The data of differences between great and average listeners were then analysed to determine which characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviours that made them outstanding listeners.
Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks.
On the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. These questions gently challenge old assumptions, but do so in a constructive way. Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialogue, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.
Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem.
The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen when the listener is passive (or, for that matter, critical). Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them. Good listening was characterised by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation.
In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make them an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make them a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.
Good listeners tended to make suggestions.
Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. This finding was somewhat surprising, since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that “So-and-so didn’t listen, he just jumped in and tried to solve the problem.” Perhaps what the data revealed is that making suggestions is not itself the problem; it may be the skill with which those suggestions are made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. (Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.)
While many may have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, what the findings showed is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are people you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energise, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.
Levels of listening
Of course, there are different levels of listening. Not every conversation requires the highest levels of listening, but many conversations would benefit from greater focus and listening skill. Consider which level of listening you’d like to aim for:
Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment in which difficult, complex, or emotional issues can be discussed.
Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops, focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye contact. (This behaviour not only affects how you are perceived as the listener; it immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and inner feelings. Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This in turn makes you a better listener.)
Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that their understanding is correct.
Level 4: The listener observes nonbverbal cues, such as facial expressions, gestures, posture, even perspiration and respiration rates and numerous other subtle body language signals. It is estimated that 80% of what we communicate comes from these signals. It might sound strange to some, but we listen with our eyes as well as our ears.
Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic in hand, and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathises with and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.
Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light. This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person. However, good listeners never highjack the conversation so that they or their issues become the subject of the discussion.
Each of the levels builds on the others; thus, if you’ve been criticised (for example) for offering solutions rather than listening, it may mean you need to attend to some of the other levels (such as clearing away distractions or empathizing) before your proffered suggestions can be appreciated.
Energy, acceleration, height and amplification
He ends by saying, "We suspect that in being a good listener, most of us are more likely to stop short rather than go too far. Our hope is that this research will help people, by providing a new perspective on listening. We hope those who labour under an illusion of superiority about their listening skills will see where they really stand. We also hope the common perception that good listening is mainly about acting like an absorbent sponge will wane. Finally, we hope all will see that the highest and best form of listening comes in playing the same role for the other person that a trampoline plays for a child. It gives energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening."
All good stuff for workplace teams, but listening to a person who has any kind of compromised cognition requires just the same skills. It is a great pity that listening is rarely a skill that is taught formally to people going into the caring professions, although two years ago, I facilitated a series of REAL Communication workshops (which have appreciative enquiry and active listening at their core) for 140 or so student doctors, nurses and OTs at Kingston University. I then trained teaching staff to facilitate the workshops themselves. The project received a CCG Merit Award, but sadly, like so many in the sector, was discontinued once the funding ceased.
If you have ever been in hospital, you might well agree that listening is the key to good care of anyone. When people listen in the way Jack Zenger talks about, they demonstrate that they care about the other person, and when the person feels cared about, they also feel cared for, because one is dependent on the other.
The other day I read an interesting story in Science Alert about a 44 year-old French man is able to live a relatively normal, healthy life, despite missing 90 per cent of his brain.
This fact has caused scientists reconsider what it is that makes us conscious. To be conscious is to be aware of ourselves and each other, but despite decades of research, our understanding of it is still basic. If consciousness is based in the brain, how is it possible for a person to lose the majority of their neurons and still be aware of themselves and their surroundings?
Apparently, after visiting the doctor complaining of mild weakness in his left leg, a subsequent brain scan revealed that his skull was mostly filled with fluid, leaving just a thin outer layer of actual brain tissue, with the internal part of his brain almost totally eroded.
It is thought that the majority of the man's brain was slowly destroyed over the course of 30 years by hydrocephalus – the build-up of fluid in the brain. He had been diagnosed with it as an infant and treated with a stent, but it was removed when he was 14 years old leading to the erosion of his brain.
But despite minimal remaining brain tissue and a low IQ of 75, the man wasn't mentally disabled. He was relatively healthy, worked as a civil servant and was married with two children. His case study prompted scientists to question what it takes to survive and challenges our understanding of consciousness.
A cognitive psychologist from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, Axel Cleeremans, suggests that it is unlikely that one specific brain region is responsible for consciousness but that the brain learns consciousness over and over again, rather than being born with it, which means that its location can be flexible and can be learnt by different brain regions, explained in a recent lecture on his 'radical plasticity thesis', at the ASSC conference in Buenos Aires.
As the article pointed out, the theory fits in well with recent research that suggests the adult brain is more adaptable than was previously thought – and capable of taking on new roles in case of injury.
It seems that in order to be aware, it is necessary not only simply to know information, but also to know that one knows information. Cleeremans claims that the brain is continually and unconsciously learning to re-describe its own activity to itself, and these descriptions form the basis of conscious experience.
So, what does all that have to do with a man surviving with only 10 percent of his brain? According to Cleeremans, even though the man's remaining brain was tiny, the neurons left over were still able to generate a theory about themselves, which means the man remained conscious of his actions. The story is a striking reminder of what our brains can achieve, even when they're very badly damaged and perhaps provides some hope that it in the future, it might be possible to reverse some of the illnesses that cause neuro-degeneration.
As we age, sensitive passwords, especially for financial websites which gather data, may be easily forgotten or can be cracked.
I met Paul Gill a few months ago. He is living with dementia and is part of our research project group with which I’m involved at Warwick University called the Language Sensing Study: Dementia Diagnosis and Monitoring. More of this another day.
He is well-qualified to comment on computer security matters – for 15 years, Paul worked on software for military radar systems and had MOD security training, albeit 25 years ago.
He tells me that the main password risk is from computer hacking inside a bank’s computers or downloaded malware. However, MOD advised that any password/passphrase should not be guessable by a human. Banks will not pay up if they can avoid it by (plausibly) blaming a family member, however innocent they may be. A passphrase such as “long live our gracious ...” would be unsafe, as any person could guess the next word is “queen”.
He adds, “whilst for very obvious reasons I never breach bank terms by discussing the exact password/passphrase I use, old car registrations and co-op numbers are good candidates for remaining in long term memory!”
“The MOD told us to never ever to assume that a person ringing us was who they said they were. Always ring them back using a number you know is correct having ended the call and heard the dialling tone."
He uses Kaspersky anti-virus – “(though I'd rather it was a UK firm!)” He advises, "ignore unsolicited offers of free drive upgrades or software unless it’s on on the manufacturer’s website. Older printers and scanners for Windows 10 are hopefully available from the manufacturer."
He uses CCleaner (reputable free software https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CCleaner ) to clean his cache both before and after an online visit to the bank and right-clicks to use the “in Private” settings and he does not take up their offers.
Paul doesn’t use a mobile device for banking – his PC is “firmly attached by cable, which to all intents and purposes doesn’t radiate and can’t be intercepted, although the bank does have my mobile number for emergencies.”
If you receive alarming reports of a new improved scam, Paul advises looking up the exact words on the internet and that http://www.hoaxbusters.org/ usually lists the ones that do the rounds every few years!
He says, “Although we have the fastest internet we can get, it’s still slow and runs at the speed of the slowest component but I got what I think was a 20% speed increase by using faster cables:
You can check internet speed via a number of websites. “I can’t remember whether this is the one I used but it’s probably sponsored by someone selling ISP, so firms that come up 2nd to the sponsor are probably best! http://www.broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk/
Internet Service Provider
Virgin as Paul’s ISP of choice. “It’s expensive, but customer service is good and when I had to help someone in his late 80s who’d made a dreadful hash of downloading Windows10, they accessed the computer remotely to fix it.