By Kent Mulkey

Bill and Barbara stop by your senior community to “take a look around”. They are just considering their options for 5-10 years down the road when they will need to downsize and free up more of their time for travel and for family activities. Bill is 83 and Barbara is 81. They get around pretty well albeit a little more slowly than normal.

After they leave, we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are being honest. As Malcolm Gladwell* puts it, we “default to the truth”. With prospective residents, don’t be caught in the trap of merely believing what they tell you. Pay attention to their face, their posture, the tone of their voice, whether they make eye contact, and the story they tell you. And yes, look in their eyes as a window to their soul.

We get fooled by people. Bernie Madoff did it. Jerry Sandusky did it. Amanda Knox did it (we assumed her to be guilty because she showed little to no emotion in the courtroom). We think people are telling us the truth.

You would be blown away if you met my mother. She is well put together, a sharp dresser, great smile, engaging, intelligent, and travels the Bay Area doing presentations in retirement homes for the old people about her expertise in California history. She is 92 and will not entertain the idea of moving to a senior community.

But here is what you would perhaps never know. She is lonely, sick, undernourished, mean to people, her family is not inclined to visit her, she has virtually no friends left. Nobody really likes her. She will likely die an isolated old lady in her home of 60 years. Being in her home is her last vestige of independence and control. At the core, it is a very sad and tragic situation.

People who think they know seniors because of their years of experience and thousands of hours being face to face with them look at the expressions on people’s faces and listen to what they say and think they know the truth. They don’t. They default to the truth – we are still inclined to believe people, no matter what the evidence tells us.

Years ago, I stopped by the home of a couple who were considering a move to the senior community where I worked. I checked the refrigerator while my co-worker engaged the couple. They had talked about how well they were eating so I decided to see for myself. The refrigerator was stocked with about 50 Snickers bars, and nothing else, except a carton of sour milk.

If you doubt the truth about what you are hearing, trust your gut; you may be on to something. People’s lives and well-being are at stake.

*Some ideas for this article come from the latest book by Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers. My favorite Gladwell books are The Tipping Point, Blink, David and Goliath, Outliers and What the Dog Saw.