Earlier this month I found myself in the honoured position of being a judge for a care awards event. As judges we had six categories to review, and there were some amazing testimonies of the care and support dedicated social care staff had given.
Amongst the many pieces of supporting evidence we reviewed, one short testimony from a lady who was 101 years-old made me think. She commented on how this particular care worker was, “Very gentle and caring.”
It struck me instantly that we don’t talk anywhere near enough about gentleness as a quality. It’s perhaps taken for granted, a ‘given’ that everyone providing care and support will be gentle, but gentleness has many facets, and can mean many different things to different people.
My idea of gentle and yours may be very different. How a sensitive person, who feels pain easily, might interpret gentleness is going to be different from a person with a high pain threshold who’s always been pretty tough with themselves, perhaps from doing a hard physical job.
How health and social care professionals interpret gentleness is also going to vary immensely. Someone might believe they are being very gentle, when in actual fact the person in receipt of their care or support may feel very differently.
Sometimes gentleness is lost when time is short, there are multiple tasks waiting to be done, our minds are elsewhere, or if a person we are trying to help is verbally or physically unhappy with us. None of these are excuses, just the facts facing many professionals.
In training, gentleness is rarely mentioned. We talk about being person-centred, about compassion and kindness, but gentleness is mostly just assumed. Can gentleness be taught? If you mentor someone with the right aptitude and values closely enough, showing them what a gentle touch and gentle movement is, then some element of learning can happen, but you cannot physically become someone else’s hands so there will always be an unknown quantity of how gentle that person is actually being.
But of course gentleness isn’t just about the physical, however much it is associated with our actions and how we utilise our own physical strength. Gentleness in how we speak, behave and respond emotionally to a person is absolutely vital, but even less thought about than physical gentleness. A short, sharp response to someone, perhaps because we’ve answered their question numerous times already today, or an insincere tone in our voice can hurt someone who is emotionally sensitive.
Emotional sensitivity may exist because the person has always been predisposed to it or because they have an existing mental health condition. It may be a one-off because they are a having a bad day or it may be as a result of living with dementia. Whatever the cause, however, the need to be gentle on the mind is ever-present.
One of the wonderful things about us as human beings is our ability to feel acute emotional responses. Granted, it can be a double-edged sword, but it also opens up a world of feelings that is virtually limitless. When we provide care and support for a person, it’s crucial to be aware of everything about our approach, and consider not just what we say, or don’t say, but also how we say it.
Much like physical gentleness, we may not see anything wrong in snapping an answer, gesturing dismissively with our hands, or responding to a request with delaying tactics (for example, asking the person to sit and wait rather than address their need) – after all people do it to us and we don’t think anything of it. But these are not examples of gentleness, and the person on the receiving end may feel hurt, unwanted or unimportant.
Vitally, these feelings may not be visible to us, therefore we may not even consider that we’ve caused them. One of the great problems with the abandonment of gentleness is that its effects are often completely unseen. They strike at the heart, but the most sensitive people who experience them will often keep them locked in their heart. The result is as harmful as a lack of physical gentleness, just without the bruises to prove it.
I would urge everyone working in health and social care to consider what gentleness means to them. When you think you are being physically gentle, try and go down a notch or two more on the gentleness scale, being even more gentle than you have previously been, and see how the person responds – they may be more comfortable, happier and more secure in your company.
To be gentle on the mind, take a moment to think about your interactions. Draw breath before you dive in with whatever you were going to say or do. And never assume it is only women as the ‘fairer sex’ who need physical and mental gentleness. Men do too, particularly when they are more vulnerable as a result of living with dementia.
Until next time (which will be my 200th D4Dementia blog!)…