An Introvert in a Care Community

This afternoon it was brought to mind how extroverted our care communities are by design. As an introvert, I have been able to recognize the different personalities of others I encounter and adjust to their needs, but not all recognize the differences or that a blanket statement about what the community’s needs might be, is an inaccurate approach.

As a former Life Enrichment Specialist who worked in several communities, this was one thing that always bothered me, and I worked to encourage the expansion of our offerings. It ultimately was more like trying to mold a block of stone instead of a ball of clay. We see the obsession our society has with Myers Briggs, the Enneagram and the many personally tests created for both meaningless fun and scientific research, but we don’t do anything about what they tell us. We obsessively take these test to find out that I am an INFJ, I think I was a 4, 2, 9, on my enneagram, I am more of an Jane Bennet more than an Elizabeth Bennet, and my “real” age is 56. None of this matters unless we know how to sift through this information, to understand what is fun and what is real, to understand how this information informs our interactions and needs. I am not a fan of these tests for that very reason. We take them, we see the results but it does not change things on the larger scale or long term. It becomes a crutch, an excuse to not truly get to take the time to know someone, yet we don’t know what that crutch is saying. It is much better to realize that we will come across many different types of personalities in care. This should encourage us to truly see, hear, and understand the person in front of us and decipher how we can best serve this individual without a personality label. With that said, we like to put people in columns, to label, and to organize because it makes life easier, maybe more predictable, and fills a desire for order in chaos.

Just as our educational system and our world at large are designed for the extrovert, so too are our care communities. Music can be loud, people come towards us and pick up our hands and move them around while we sit in the wheelchair and they dance. Games are played as large groups and at times get rowdy. Meals are served in a packed dining room. Funny hats are put on us and we are put in the spotlight. And we don’t speak up about any of this because we know your job is hard at times, that there are not enough staff on duty at times, and we don’t want to hurt your feelings. These activities and way of life can be great fun and pure life enrichment for those who thrive off of others and spending time in social environments. For the introverts, this is not fun, but draining, uncomfortable, maybe even brings feelings of embarrassment and feels demeaning. The individuals that are introvert may not participate in bingo, music programs, and may not often speak with others at dinner because they are drained, their needs for time in quiet, spent by themselves, are not met. Unfortunately, they are quickly labeled as problematic, uncooperative, or in weaker (poor) health than they really are because our care communities are designed for the extroverts amongst us to excel, thrive, and live.  They, in addition to being labeled, are frequently ignored by staff when making the rounds inviting the residents to programs, or they are thrown coloring pages and iPods, then it is recorded that staff provided art therapy, music therapy, and life enrichment to these individuals. In addition to this not being art or music therapy as it is formally developed, this is also not life enrichment. We cannot change our care system overnight, but we can change the lives of the introverts in our communities starting this moment.

How? Well, here are some ideas:

1. Get to know this person as an individual, not as a chart, as a label other staff have given them, or as the form, their family might have filled out upon moving into the community. DementiaRAW has a wonderful form call, My Soul Purpose, that can start this conversation. I have linked to their name. I also have one that I will upload soon.

2. Coloring pages and iPods are good, but make sure the person likes to color, likes listing to music and having headphones stuck in/on their ears.

3. If they like pets, make sure the community’s cat or dog comes for a visit. If a therapy dog comes with a volunteer, make sure they visit this person.

4. Schedule time for you, yourself, to visit, just you and that person. Or you can set it up for two or three residents that get along to sit with each other, talk, watch a movie, listen to music, play a game, do something they will enjoy together that is low key, calm, and re-energizing for introverted individuals.

5. Be okay with them sitting in their room or apartment and/or not talking to anyone at meal times.

6. Even if they turn you down every time, always invite them to each and every program. And if they do say, “Yes!” to joining you, allow them to determine the level of participation. Be okay with them sitting and watching all that is going on without active participation. Be okay if they don’t want to dance or sing along. Be okay if they leave early or come late. Don’t put them in the spotlight, allow them to walk into the spotlight.

7. Invite them to compose the thank you, birthday, and celebratory notes you might send to staff, residents, families, and volunteers.

8. Don’t be afraid to engage in conversation with them, but don’t be offended if they don’t participate the way you wish they would. Ask them questions, but be okay with one-word answers. Ask them if they need help, but be okay with being ignored. Follow their lead. Make sure they know that you care about who they are and are here if they need/want you.

9. If they appear to want to get involved and help, find ways for them to help out with something, from the typical folding of napkins to waiting to turn off the DVD player and TV after the community movie has ended. These are not the greatest examples, but listen to how they want to help and be apart of the community, then find ways that are safe for them to do so.

10. When you approach them, match how they interact with you. Don’t barge into their room, but knock, ask if you may enter, speak calmly, speak cheerfully (just not cheerleader cheerful!)

This list only scratches the surface and will need to be revised for each person you interact with, but if you can remember the following you will be successful in care.

Introverts gain their strength in the quiet solitude, in their time alone often cut off from the outside world. They lose energy by participating in large social programs and spending time with others (especially extroverts.) Don’t label them, but see them. Socializing is crucial to living a full, vibrant, healthy life but make sure that what you are offering does not simply fill a quota or put into action the research you have read, but is catered to the individual, who they are and what they truly need and seek.

Living in a care community is not easy. I have yet to meet someone that is there by choice but are there because of doctor’s orders, family decisions, or they feel it is best but not what they want. This can be difficult for anyone as the life you worked to create for yourself is stripped away. Each and everyone of us will sort through this process in unique ways and sometimes, for introverts, when in this situation our batteries simply die faster than they might otherwise so be patient, know we are not wanting to be rude, cold, snobs, ungrateful, or any of the other labels that get pinned to our name. We care about you and seek for you to care about us.

Published by Kathryne Fassbender

Creative Gerontologist, Speaker, Catholic Innovator. I am also the granddaughter of someone who lived with Vascular Dementia.

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