Proposing solutions is a valuable skill, but can be off-putting to some elderly clients. Instead, build their trust step-by-step. Here’s how.
Imagine that an elderly client tells you she no longer has the strength or mobility to keep her house clean. You’ve noticed that lately, she has appeared disheveled, and she has even mentioned not having had a healthy meal in weeks: food preparation was an overwhelming chore.
So you do what you think is best, and what you’ve been trained to do: you start discussing a plan for in-home care.
Your client stands up and leaves in a huff, declaring that she’ll be finding another provider. You’re stunned.
What went wrong?
The Difference Between What Seniors WANT, and NEED
Surprising as it may sound, you were too good at assessing your senior clients’ needs. By needs, I mean the logical solutions and actions that directly address her medical and safety issues. You were not pausing long enough in the process to get to know what your client wanted — that is, what was important to her, what she valued, what she feared and what she wanted to avoid at all costs.
While identifying needs and proposing solutions is a valuable skill, it can be a double-edged sword. To you, it feels like the right thing to do. But it is tantamount to treating your client like a textbook problem to solve.
Instead, if you dig a little deeper and get to know your client, you might discover that maintaining her independence is far more important to her than keeping her home tidy. No wonder your recommendation, which was misaligned with these values, elicited a strong negative reaction!
Clearly, focusing solely on elderly clients’ physical or logistical needs does not take into account the bigger picture. That is, the whole person.
Take a Holistic View Before Conceiving a Plan
It is our task as professionals to do just that. By training our keen assessment skills on the bigger picture we gain a holistic view of the clients’ needs and wants before conceiving a plan. Only then can you save an elderly client from a crisis and truly plan to enhance their daily lives.
How, then, can you achieve this within your professional practice?
Here are 4 pointers:
Ask more questions.
For starters, try opening the conversation with “Why now? What’s happening in your life that has led you to come to us and consider taking action at this particular time?” This will help focus the discussion on what the client perceives as the main issues.
But don’t stop there, even if it’s tempting. Having worked with hundreds if not thousands of clients in similar situations, you might think you know exactly how the song will end after the first few notes and move quickly to problem-solving. However, answers to opening questions like this are just a starting point, a compass pointing you in the right direction. They won’t give you a full understanding of the client’s situation. So the task is to dig a little deeper by asking more specific follow-up questions, to help clarify their priorities and expectations, such as:
- “What do you see as the best possible outcome?”
- “What kind of timeframe do you have in mind?”
- “Can you paint me a picture of the scenario you’d like to see playing out?”
- “What makes you feel uncomfortable about this situation?”
- “What do you wish could happen differently?”
Start where they’re at.
This means enacting a step-by-step approach to solving problems that begin in a different place for each individual. Understanding what is important to your client helps you better understand what, exactly, that starting place is.
For example: is the elderly woman you just met with worried about having difficulties dressing but terrified of losing her independence? If so, rather than suggest she seek in-home care, you could start by suggesting that she try changing the types of clothes she wears, focusing on developing a good stock of garments that are easy to handle, free of zippers or buttons that are too stiff for her to fasten.
This might not be the most logical starting point in medical terms, but it will provide you with an opportunity to engage with her, and begin fostering a relationship that will allow for further discussion when the time is right.
Gain their confidence.
By identifying what’s important to your clients and starting where they’re at, you are laying the foundations of trust that will pave the way for you to tackle the more critical medical and safety issues which they might otherwise have been resistant to addressing.
In the case of the elderly woman with difficulties getting dressed, once she sees that your suggestion of changing clothes is working and that she’s able to dress more easily, she will feel pleased, will value your opinion and will be more open to trusting you overall. Then she’ll also be more likely to entertain your suggestion of seeking in-home care.
Address their needs.
Once you have an established relationship of trust and a deep understanding of your client’s wants, you can lay out a plan that will address the underlying medical and safety issues that require attention – their needs – in a way that your client is willing to accept.
What Happens When Your Aging Clients Trust You
How do these steps look together when put into practice?
Recently I worked with an eighty-three-year-old client – let’s call him John – who was experiencing memory issues. John’s family was greatly concerned about his failing memory. They were unsure whether or not he was still remembering to pay his bill and take his medications as prescribed, and worrying that he might get lost when he was out of the house on his own. John, however, had avoided seeing a doctor because he was afraid of finding out that he might have Alzheimer’s Disease.
Had I jumped in and suggested that he must have his mental status assessed, John might have shut down and refused my help completely. Instead, I opened our conversation with questions that were designed to determine what issues he felt were most pressing. He confided in me that his knee was really bothering him. He used to be very active, but now his knee was causing him problems and he wasn’t able to keep up with his regular routine. I asked John if he would agree to get his knee looked at, and he readily complied.
As John started to experience relief from his knee pain he also began to trust me, which allowed me to suggest interventions pertaining to his memory issues. If I had started by prioritizing needs over wants and focusing on John’s mental status, I would have been just as stuck with finding a path forward for him as his family had been, and I wouldn’t have been able to get him the care that he needed.
Addendum: Know When to Seek Help and When to Refer
As a financial or legal professional, you are not expected to suggest elaborate plans for addressing health and safety issues. Rather, having successfully opened a meaningful conversation and established the requisite trust, you can envision recommending that your client seek the help of Aging Life Care Professionals™ such as a geriatric care manager.
This can have immeasurable value added for all, strengthening your working relationship and increasing its chances of longevity, while increasing your client’s chances for personal satisfaction.
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