Monday, August 27, 2012

Not Your Grandma's Library

The library prides itself on being a place open to all.  From children's services to eBook tutorials, the library has everything you need and more.  But, when helping an elderly customer the other day I noticed that something was amiss.  Most libraries have staff with different skill sets who can be called upon in certain customer service situations.  You may have a children's specialist, a reader's advisory expert, a business connoisseur, and so on.  Of all these specialties, I've never encountered a  senior specialist - someone who, at the very least, knows the best way to assist older adults.

Having realized the deficiency, I continued to assist my customer perform a search on Google all the while taking mental notes of my own exchanges with the woman.  I successfully helped her find what she was looking for online. The customer service transaction took a painstakingly long amount of time and I found myself becoming frustrated throughout the process.  But why would I feel this way?  After all, she is a customer and I am there to help.  Had she have been a child, I probably would have approached the situation with more patience and understanding.  And so I went on a journey to understand why we, as librarians, seem to be gerontophobic and how we can turn our fears into a positive customer service experience.  Here's what I've found:

Aging from infancy to adulthood is a developmental process of resolving emotional conflicts.  The conflict of independence vs. dependence in childhood and the conflict of meaningful work vs. monetary need in  adulthood are just a couple of examples of our progression through life.  Often times, the development into old age is seen as degenerative when, really, it is just a developmental process of resolving emotional conflicts.  More often than not, the conflict needing to be resolved is deeply rooted in the need for control.

The development into Senior adulthood is marked by one key word - loss.  Loss of strength, loved ones, and independence are just a couple of factors that Seniors face which foster the need to retain some amount of control in their lives.  In addition to control is the need to pass on a legacy.  We often associate repetitive storytelling as a sign of deterioration but, in fact, storytelling serves a significant purpose in validation.  More often than not, Seniors will retell stories until they are met with satisfactory responses which ensure their experiences will be remembered.

Taking into consideration these two key points about Senior development, think about your own interactions with the elderly.  The best way to communicate with them is by listening to their subtle hints about what they really want and need.  Here are a few checkpoints to help you communicate better:

  • Explain the how and why simplistically but avoid being condescending
  • Recognize that you are talking to someone with intelligence and years of life experience
  • Lead instead of instructing or taking over completely
  • Understand that anger is often frustration in disguise
  • Diffuse angry customers by putting the control back in their hands - usually through listening
  • Be patient
Using these communication skills in your everyday interactions and you'll see a difference in, not only the Senior customer, but yourself as well.  If you would like more information on this topic, I highly recommend How to Say it to Seniors by David Solie, the source for all of the information written here.

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