Right speech is a difficult thing to put into practice, which means that every day presents me with opportunities to hone this skill in my day job. I am regularly advocating on behalf of elderly individuals in nursing homes, and I have learned many lessons about Right Speech firsthand…
The most useful lesson I have learned from residents is the value of being discerning when it comes to who to “spend our breath on,” so to speak. This may sound counterintuitive to Buddhists, because it suggests that some people deserve our attention more than others—but let us not forget that we all have our limitations and our vulnerabilities. Individuals in nursing homes can be particularly vulnerable, because they have additional needs that cannot be met in the community and as such a large part of their life is in the hands of the staff at the facility.
Because of this, their ability to read people—the pitch of their voice, the gestures they make, their ability to keep their word—is heightened. It is not uncommon for me to suggest speaking with a specific staff member to raise a resident’s concern, only for the resident to say “Don’t bother with that one! They won’t listen to a word you say, all they care about is their paycheck.”
Indeed, residents have been teaching me about which staff member to approach in order to be truly heard, and this has saved us all a lot of unnecessary stress and work. Additionally, it is a lesson I try to apply to my own friendships—speaking one’s truth is important, but if I do this a few times and continue to be dismissed, it may be time to reevaluate that particular relationship.
Speak with the intent of loving kindness
You may be familiar with the old adage, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” but in my opinion this is problematic. Indeed, a common misconception when it comes to right speech is to believe that only kind words can be spoken. As my clients have shown me time and time again, it is far more helpful to speak the truth than to utter empty niceties. As an advocate, a large part of the cases I receive are allegations of abuse, and these can come in many forms: financial abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and gross neglect. My role is to check in with the resident if they believe they are being abused, and to inquire whether they would like assistance with this matter. It can be daunting approaching a resident—usually a stranger—and speaking to them about the most intimate details of their lives.
For example, I recently worked with a resident whose son, despite being in charge of the resident’s finances, was not paying his bills. The resident had essentially been dumped at the nursing home, without any clothes or money, while the son went away on multiple expensive holidays. Staff had approached the resident about this, but the focus had been on posing questions about the resident’s finances: “How many bank accounts do you have,” “Why not arrange for your pension to come straight to the facility,” and more. Nobody had once looked him in the eye and expressed concern that he may be being taken advantage of. The result is that the resident clammed up and became defensive, fearing that his son would get into trouble.
This was apparent when I met with the resident, who was initially very suspicious. Once I informed him directly about staff’s concerns he was being abused, and explained to the resident that it is his right to spend his money as he wishes, even if that means giving it all away—we were able to have an honest conversation about what the potential negative outcomes of this decision would be. Recognizing that he would go into serious debt if he continued to let his son spend all his money, the resident was able to make an informed decision about how to proceed. He allowed his son restricted access to one of his accounts, while ensuring the money from his other accounts went to meeting his own needs. How easy it could have been for me, the people-pleaser, to tip-toe around the issue! But in the end, who would have benefited from that? Confronting the reality of the situation head on was the only way to properly address this issue.
As these wonderful and difficult encounters have taught me, right speech is not about uttering kind words—rather, it is about speaking with the intent of loving kindness.