Give them a place where they can “let their hair down.” Lowering your expectations opens up everything. The whole rest of the world expects them to measure up to its expectations; can’t we offer them an hour’s break from looking good, being positive, being a success?
She was ninety‑one years old, and she couldn’t sleep because a dog had sneaked into her little apartment in the facility, and it was whimpering under her bed. She was in luck because the chaplain on duty that night was a genius of practical psychology, a priest whose mercy was deep and generous.
“I will look for the dog, Mrs. Edwards,” he said. “Would you mind waiting in the living room?”
“Oh, thank you, yes; I just can’t stand to hear his crying but I’m afraid he might bite me.”
“You did the right thing Mrs. Edwards, calling me. Yes, I see him,” he said, down on his knees by her little bed. “He seems very frightened, too. I’m going to turn off the lights in the living room so he won’t see you or be frightened any more when I take him out, is that okay?” He took the invisible dog into his arms.
“Oh, yes, Father. That will be fine,” she agreed.
He returned to her bedroom, made a few noises, calling the dog to come out. As he left the room, he said in her direction, “I’ll set him free in the yard; a tag is on his collar so I know he has a home, and will find his way back to his family. I’ll be right back, Mrs. Edwards.” And he waited a few moments, went back inside, turned the living room light back on and tucked her into bed.
The next evening, a message was waiting on his desk. Mrs. Edwards had dictated a little note to a day nurse, thanking him for the best night’s sleep she’d had in weeks.
The Tale Wagged
Before hearing this story (I’m embarrassed to admit), I might have actually tried to explain to Mrs. Edwards that no dog could possibly have entered her room. (Truth be told, I still make the same mistake.) Fr. Manuel, however, is much kinder and wiser. He entered Mrs. Edwards’ altered reality with compassion toward her dementia. He fully accepted her limitations without any judgment at all.
True listening opens doors like this.
Okay, but how do we put it into practice?
To hear what people are feeling, you often need to set aside your analytical framework and simply inhabit their bafflement.
Listen “between the lines.” Focus, not on their words, but on their sorrows, hopes, loss, confusion. Think of it, perhaps, as setting aside the lyrics so as to feel their music. You can think about it later.
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