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Listening & Healthcare: Conversations with a Psychologist

Posted by Hedy Keiderling PhD, MPH on Aug 10, 2020 2:03:26 PM

*Patient names have been changed


In just seven minutes, I was on the brink of tears. It was a Friday morning and I was on my weekly Intus Cares phone call with John*. His wife of 60 years has Alzheimer Disease and is in a separate wing of the nursing home.  Last week he told me that he hasn’t seen her in months because of the visitor ban due to the coronavirus. Last week he said they were lifting the ban. And this week he told me that his wife didn’t remember him.

After we hung up, I called my mom immediately. 



I listened to Gaby as she recounted her conversation with John, and it reminded me of how the healthcare space used to be when I was a young medical professional, when we used to listen and care. Now we are so quick to be conclusive and diagnose.

I have worked with many different populations- from children with emotional and behavioral issues to drug dealers to schools with students from every background imaginable. Throughout my work, I’ve noticed that the common thread among populations is the need to truly listen and understand what people were going through. As a counselor, a psychologist, and public health professional, my role has always been to identify the areas of concern and find interventions to help. I learned early on to not quickly jump to a diagnosis but to see each person as an individual with a story. It can require looking beyond the words that were said and recognizing the nonverbal communication.


I remember the times when I felt like listening and caring made a difference; two times come to mind. There was the time when I was working in drug prevention in the Bronx and spoke to a room full of drug dealers with beepers (as I date myself). We had a very open conversation about what they do, why they do it, and the impact of their actions on others; we both felt
equally respected and heard. Then there was the time when I was a school psychologist. The 5th grade boy who, when we accidentally bumped into each other in the hall quite hard, grumbled something I can’t repeat. It only took five minutes of going through a mutual apology to lead to his understanding of his importance as a person. I became his new best friend as he then acknowledged me in the halls, and shortly after he introduced me to his friends as a psychologist they can talk to. Because that’s what we did- we talked.

Now when we clump people together under a diagnosis, we can lose the humane quality of truly
getting to know them. And when we lose that, we miss the stories that may lead to not only more useful interventions, but an even better outcome.


Talking to John is not going to make his wife’s Alzheimer disease go away. Talking to John won’t make his wife remember him. But talking to John lets him know that he has someone who is listening and he has someone who cares.