From Here to There

We exist within our bodies.  Our bodies allow us a means of expression and communication.  We are not, however, our bodies. We are luminous beings. We are pools of water with awareness, who happen to be temporarily wrapped in meat.  I admit, it is a persuasive illusion, but the reality of human existence is life in the form of spirit.  What “we” are can be reached despite obstacles presented by differences in language, experiences or disease.  Solving the problem of how to get through and reach understanding with dementia patients has been reinforcing this truth.

One woman’s brain has a disconnect between what she is thinking and what she says.  She’s forming sentences internally and saying things that make no sense, but with a conversational tone that makes it obvious she doesn’t know she’s speaking in what is called “word salad”.  She was a teacher, and has an impressive vocabulary.  Fortunately, she’s still inquisitive.  That is the essence of what drives her.  She’s curious about everything, just like me.  We meet on that common ground.  Every couple of sentences, she will end with a query.  She wants to be listened to, to feel connected.

“Do you think we ought to get some minna tee be saw backs?”

“Sure.  Why not?  We can do that after lunch.”

“Oh, good.  As long as you can get those wheedles stabilizers.”

“I’ll do my best.”

I share lovely, sincere smiles with her, and she is content.

One fellow is going to be 98 years old soon.  He sleeps most of the time, often seated on a couch in our room with the fireplace.  He has ruptured disks in his lower back, takes massive doses of pain meds and he can not stand up without assistance.  He’s also nearly blind, and has hallucinations based upon his long life of hard work.  When I come to get him for a meal, I tell him it’s time to take a break and get something to eat.  He’ll say something like, “Well, all right.  Gotta eat some time.”  I place his strong arms around my shoulders and tell him we’ll do this together so it won’t hurt.  By slowly pulling him toward me while my arms are under his I can raise him up smoothly with no strain upon his back.  When he is standing successfully, he pats my back and says things like, “We did it.  That’s good.”  His whole life has been shaped by tasks.  When we approach each thing to be done like a work project, he is content.

Meal times are satisfying exercises in shared communication without words.  Some residents eat unassisted, but many need some help.  Part of our duty to empower and respect them is to assist only to the degree required.  I may cup my hand around another’s while he holds a spoon.  He will point the spoon toward what he wants, and I will guide it into the food and steady it as he raises it to his mouth.  He is choosing what to eat and how much.  I’m providing follow-through to his intent.  By not speaking or drawing attention to this process I become invisible, and his reality is balanced inside and outside of his perception.

Another man was sitting with us while this was going on.  He had been taught that men must do everything for themselves and accept no help, and he was irritated at first.

“He’s a grown man.  He should be doin’ that for himself!”

“He wants to, but he can’t, Bill.  It’s all right.  I’m paid to help him.”

“Oh…  Well, I guess it’s a good thing you’re here, then.”

There’s another woman who was born in Europe and moved here after World War II.  English is not her first language.  She was raised to be a racist.  One of the care-givers who is Black discovered her in the wrong room, and she responded violently when the care-giver attempted to direct her to the right room.  I came to assist.  She began chattering at me in the words of a language I don’t speak.  However, there’s another language we all recognize.  I could tell by her tone she was angry and wanted validation, so I nodded my head in agreement and touched her in an encouraging and gentle manner.  She calmed down, and in a few minutes came along with me to her own room.  I tucked her into bed that night.  She offered her arms, asking in the foreign tongue if I loved her.  I hugged her back and kissed her forehead, and she went to sleep like a happy child.

Just like the residents at the care home, my true self exists in containment.  I must express myself through my own level of understanding, in the context of my experiences, my state of health and my own physical limitations.  The tone that I am passes through filters.  My part and your part of the melody harmonize, and the song gains another verse.


Filed under Communications, Emotions, Ethics and Morality, symbolism

22 responses to “From Here to There

  1. Is it wrong that after reading, “We are pools of water with awareness, who happen to be temporarily wrapped in meat.” I thought “Hey, we sound kind of delicious!”?

    How do you learn the way these residents have been “constructed?” Do you have much access to their pasts, or is it all learnable through simple observation? Have you ever been wrong?

    On a quick, unrelated note, I received an interview at the perfect job in Wichita, but screwed up on the test. That was all I really found during my time there, so I’m back at rock bottom.

    • You’ll get other opportunities, Tim. You now have the experience of knowing what went wrong on the test, and will be able to improve in future similar or related circumstances. Thousands of my past failures set the stage for later accomplishments.

      • Thank you. But what worries me most is I don’t seem to find enough opportunities to fail as often as you have. Boy, that sounds weird, but what I mean is I’ve had this interview recently, and my last was in February 2009. So often I get passed by entirely. I guess that’s why I took this last result so hard.

        • LOL…You’ll get those kind of opportunities too. I’m about twice your age as I recall. Statistically, 27-35 is the easiest time to get hired. More people will take the risk since they will assume you are mature enough to be reliable but young enough to be energetic and in need of any job.

  2. I’m wrong about what will work with the residents plenty of times. I keep trying until I find what does work. They have preferences in company like I do. Sometimes another care-giver can do what failed when I tried, and it will work for them. Their conditions also change. We keep improvising.

    We are given a couple of pages with info on each person’s past, but the material is voluntary so the quality varies.

  3. I’m feeling a lot more peaceful after reading your post today. On behalf of the people you take care of that I would like to say Thank You! Never underestimate the power of the difference that you make in their lives (and mine).

  4. Mikey, I regard this little post as a treasure. “providing follow-through to his intent” I loved. What a great job-description.

  5. Mikey,
    I too have seen that old age appears to amplify the best and worst traits in people. People who have been angry, passive, rebellious, happy, calm, impatient, frustrated throughout their lives appear to have these things come out more and more as they age.
    Especially the negative traits: Do they loose restraint? just not care who sees it any more? or are the oblivious?
    My best friend made an observation once that really made me think: Babies are gorgeous but become difficult teenagers so that’s it easier for parents to throw them out of the nest and let them go make an independent life for themselves. Sometime after that (in theory) they become halfway decent human beings. Then when they get old they become grouchy, obsessive, dogmatic and more demanding… she says this happens so that it’s easier for the family to accept that that their time is drawing to a close and to make the loss of their passing easier.
    She also said that she’s seen exactly the same thing happen with her elderly dogs so it’s the same principle throughout the (human)animal kingdoms.
    She might have a darned good point LOL.

    • My experience is too limited to make any useful generalizations about the effect of aging and/or the disease syndromes yet. I will say that based just on THIS job, some angry, type-A people get mellow while some happy-go-lucky folks turn paranoid. It’s hard to predict, and the same people will reverse roles day to day.

      I do think your observations are interesting to consider, so I’m going to take some time and do just that.

  6. Cat

    Sorry for my shitty lack of blog commenting. Just letting you know I am still reading, I swear. Haha.

    • Considering the quality of the work you are publishing at the moment, I almost feel guilty thinking I’m taking part of your energy while you’re here.

      (I did say “almost”. Nice to touch base with you any time.)

  7. Pingback: From Here to There…and back again. « } She's Boxing Clever {

  8. Your post is very beautiful, though I think I could use a big slab of steak after your analogy.
    You’re doing great work on the job and on the blog.

    • I wonder if people salivate when they hear the Eucharist speech? (“Take, eat, this is my body” etc.)
      The nuns would smek me for that one, wouldn’t they? Or maybe just a whole lotta Our Fathers/Hail Marys and eraser pounding.

      • Pie

        Nah, your steak analogy is better (especially for someone who doesn’t eat it).

        Like Cat, I’m a silent participant at the moment. There’s so much in these posts that I don’t feel there’s anything I can add to enhance them. Sometimes it’s enough to just read, then reflect.

        • Most readers do not comment. I know you will do so judiciously, Pie, when the occasion requires it and your time allows. Just saying you find them substantial is a “meaty” compliment!

  9. Pingback: I worked in a specialized dementia care facility for nine months « kissesforelizabeth

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