Riding high on ‘first-day’ excitement, I went to meet my very first client, Alice. I was part way through my masters in Counseling Psychology. My clinical training was to take place at AgeSong, an Assisted Living community. I was to be learning about and providing psychotherapy for the elders who lived there.
“Hi, I’m Kyrié. I am your gero-wellness intern. I read your chart. It said you are new here. I am new here too.”
“Thank you, but I don’t need any help.”
“Okay. Would you like to talk or maybe sit together? We can do whatever you want.” My mind was racing with interventions and techniques I had learned, which I was anxious to try in the wild.
“Kid, I am kind of a loner. Now, please leave me alone.”
There I stood: a door in my face and 48 minutes of the standard 50-minute session remained. This internship was not starting as I expected.
After a few weeks of this, I sought guidance from my peers and supervisors. “Join in her world. Meet her there,” they counseled. I talked with the care partners who were with her day in and day out. They said she was most social at meals. The next night a particularly helpful care partner sat me next to her at dinner. Alice introduced herself, and we chatted. We dined together for six months. Each night I heard stories that varied slightly with her mood. And each night after dinner she would say it was nice to meet me and go to bed.
We were spending time together. I was learning about Alice and providing a container for her stories. And my intuition told me more depth was possible. I spoke with my supervisor. They agreed with me. The lack of depth was probably due to the agenda I was carrying with me into each engagement. My supervisor counseled me to be like a toy or book on a shelf ready to be accessed but not the initiator.
“Just go and be with her. Don’t try to DO anything.”
Trying not to do anything felt very strange. My whole life had been spent doing. I was good at doing. The first day I tried being Alice walked by me a few times but said nothing. The second day, I brought a book to read to help direct my attention away from expectations of interaction. As I sat reading, she sat down next to me.
“So, what’s your name?”
Some days Alice would walk past, but most days she would sit and talk. She would tell me stories of when she came to San Francisco. Alice shared joyful things and hard things from her past and present. We never had a traditional 50-minute therapy session where she came to my office. I was able to get to know her genuinely and, as a result, advocate for her. We connected on a person-to-person level (where transformation happens). I cannot speak for her and what she received from our interactions, but for my part, she taught me presence. Through an intuitive process of trial and error, I learned to be with her. I learned not to approach connection with an expectation of the other or ourselves. Alice was an immediate indicator of this. If I came in with too much expectation, she would be quick to show me. Being with her taught me how better to connect with others. None of us want the person we are connecting with to come in with expectations. When we shed expectations for interactions profound and transformational connection is possible.
*names and other identifying details changed to protect anonymity
Ronequa Martin says
I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging and your post was amazing to read. I was interested in reading your blog because I am going to purse my masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in October this year. It was a good insight on how an internship can be working with clients that are aging. Sometimes just being with a person and enjoying their presence is better than expecting them to be a certain way. Sometimes you learn so much from small natural conversation and not a dialogue of some sort.
Kyrie Carpenter says
Right on Ronequa! Feel free to stay in touch on your journey, the world needs more people like you!
Ken Mafli says
Great post, it resonates with me. My uncle is in the late stages of dementia and many times he will acknowledge I am there, but then promptly fall back asleep. I go, armed with a book, and just remain by his side. If nothing else, he knows I am there and he is not alone. Thanks for the post!
Kyrie Carpenter says
Great strategy Ken!
Isabel Tom says
I LOVE this and appreciate that you were able to put in words! I think some of my best relationships with seniors have come simply from sitting and doing my own work with an older adult over time. Just being with others can be so powerful!
Kyrié Carpenter says
Thanks, Isabel! You are so right the best moments come from being with. One of the single biggest lessons I have learned from those living well with dementia is how to be with, such a gift.
What a beautiful piece on the power of “being”, when we drop expectations and just be in genuine connection with one another,that is how we heal. Thank you for this Kyrie, you are a gift.
Kyrié Carpenter says
Jenna, thanks for bringing in healing to the conversation. I absolutely agree being with is a healing salve.
Alan Harris says
As a hospice volunteer who helps patients write stories, letters and poetry I have struggled at times to make that connection. Your approach with Alice is very helpful to me. I will meet them “in their place” which may be a time of the day when their favorite show is on TV and we can watch it together or when I bring their favorite songs to play in the background. Thanks again.
Judy Konopaski says
As a former volunteer certified ombudsman, this story is very familiar to me. I remember my first months getting to know residents in an assisted living facility near me . It was difficult. I learned. I got better. I believe I was finally successful as I began to build relationships and trust. This story brings understanding to a common situation for young professionals. Building a relationship takes time and patience. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Kyrié Carpenter says
Alan, I am so glad you found insight that can be helpful in my story. What special work you do. I hope starting with ‘being with’ can help you connect and bring your gift to even more people. Thanks for doing what you do!
Judy, Thank you for sharing your experience and thanks for all the work you have done as an ombudsman, such an important role!