The following story is a piece that I wrote over twenty years ago, published in the Canadian magazine, Long Term Care . As I re-read it, it occurred to me that after all the time that has passed, neither my opinion, nor my passion for caring for seniors has changed. As I too have gotten older and as they say, “a little long in the tooth”, I have been building on my own arsenal of stories; some good, not-so-good, some hilarious and some downright heart-breaking. Revisiting this piece has reinforced the importance of story-telling, of getting to know what really makes a person tick and allowing ones past to shape, or at the very least, influence their future. It has catapulted me into a new–or rather an old vision for how I see caring for an ageing population.
“I think,” Laurence begins, “That the trick to keeping your reader interested is to begin with something that catches the attention immediately.”
Laurence is talking about the book he wants to write–his autobiography. He has lived one hundred and two-year and believes his life has been interesting enough that someone might like to read about it. I sit perched on his window sill, listening to his stories; sometimes the same ones over and over again. His stories never fail to intrigue me; I think he has a best-seller, and I tell him so. We discuss the particulars of the book; what to include, what to omit, what might be of interest, and which demographic to target as potential readers. I am not Laurence’s editor, but rather his friend and therapy assistant in the long-term care facility where he lives.
Perhaps if my boss should happen by, I might be reprimanded for “just sitting there” and “not being productive.” It’s funny how you can feel guilty for spending time with a resident that doesn’t involve some purpose readily apparent to an onlooker. In these days of classification for provincial funding, it seems that everything you do has to translate into a dollar value; it has to be a recognized aspect of the resident’s care plan –something to be marked “completed” on their chart.
Not much wonder that there is no time for story-telling. If it meant that I didn’t have the time to stop and listen to the remembrances of my residents, I really don’t know if I would want to continue doing this job. I love a good story and for me, the best ones don’t end when you close the book, but rather when you release the hand or give the hug.
I have been transported to times and places that only my imagination would have allowed me, save for my resident’s memories. Gladys took me to the backyard of her newlywed home where she frantically buried the rice pudding that didn’t quite turn out. She didn’t want her husband to find out that she wasn’t the cook his mother was. I was enthralled as Katie triumphed over her wicked step-mother. She met her Prince Charming and went on to become “Aunt Katie”, a radio personality to hundreds of faithful child listeners. I wept with Laurence as he returned to Vimy Ridge , eighty years after the Great War to say a final farewell to his slain brother. And finally, I witnessed the courage of Kay, who kept death at arm’s length so she could experience the joy of becoming a first-time grandmother.
These are more that amazing stories. They are the teaching tools that these people use to show me what really matters to them. When I listen, I am healing wounds–perhaps not the kind that require bandages, but the kind that need to be left open to air.
We manage behaviours when we validate a person’s past. We promote independence when we acknowledge a person’s previous accomplishments and skills, helping them to set goals reflective of their desire to restore dignity. Through mindful and intentional listening we learn what our charges really want and need–and in doing so, perhaps learn what really matters . I know my life will never be the same having travelled through the memories of these insightful teachers.
I am busy living out my own life stories. One day I may know Laurence’s happiness when someone comes to perch on my window sill and listens to my stories–maybe even more than once.
So here I am some twenty years later. Dancing to Despacito with Violeta, a fiery four- foot- eight doll from Uruguay because her husband of sixty-nine years can’t/won’t get up and dance with her anymore. James is showing up for my exercise class despite his painful joints because he’s determined to break out of the nursing home to live independently. And while Earl’s favourite line is “I don’t like it!” repeated no less than three times with every mouthful of food I try to give him, we’ve still discovered that we were born in the same city, he had a dog named Pat, and he loves chocolate ice cream.
Yes and amen.