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Donna Thomson

The Language of Care - Have We Lost It? from Donna Thomson

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The Language of Care - Have We Lost It?
Recently, a friend and colleague railed at our collective lack of empathy for homeless people living on the street. "What kind of a society do we live in where we step over another human being lying on the sidewalk?" she demanded. I visualised myself on the street, seeing a human shape huddled under a blanket in a doorway. Then, I see myself turning away and hurrying by, afraid to speak.

"What stops me from making eye contact or from speaking to a homeless person?" I wondered as I shifted in my chair. "Alright", I thought, "If I did stop and say hello, what exactly would I say? Excuse me, Sir... or.... May I help you? (do they look as if they need 'help'?) or.... Would you like something to eat? (I don't want to accompany this person to a restaurant, I'm on my way to an appointment!) Oh, forget it. I don't know what to say." So, in my mind, I keep walking.

I've been thinking a lot about the language of giving and receiving care. It's so difficult - have we forgotten it? Did we ever have it, or do we need to invent a new language of expressing need and gratitude?

I've begun to think about the purpose of our language in caregiving. So much talk is given to helping our loved ones be more 'independent'. But is that what they (or we) really want? One thing I know is that independence is not what it's cracked up to be. Independence is a cruel fiction for many of our loved ones and even for those who are more able, it's just an idea that equates to loneliness. 'Interdependence' is a much better guide post for our actions and policies to support both caregivers and their charges, but that word hasn't caught on as many of us had hoped.

I think it's dignity that must drive our search for the language of care and most often, dignity can be equated to contribution. Everyone wants to feel useful and to have the opportunity for being empowered to act, even if their physical or mental capacities are very diminished. So perhaps, it's 'enabled autonomy' that we strive for in our caring relationships. Let it be so for the purpose of this line of thinking.

If we want to help someone be autonomous (even if they need assistance to get through much of the day), what are some ways of offering help? Perhaps the first way is to be silent and observe closely. Is your loved one struggling to do something? Is that the moment to ask, "Want some help with that?" Next time that task comes up, does it seem appropriate to mention, "I saw in a magazine recently these really nice sweaters with zippers instead of buttons. I'll pick one up for you to try, but in the meantime, I could help with these buttons - they are so annoyingly tiny!"

Facilitating people to be autonomous with dignity is time consuming work of the human heart. Caregivers know perfectly well that it's much quicker and easier to just do the task for the person while prattling on about a different topic in order to distract 'the patient'. And there may be times when that is necessary, but can't we be honest about it? Our loved ones deserve the dignity of an honest exchange during their care activities.

Offering assistance when it's unwelcome can be tricky. Sometimes, "I'm here if you'd like a hand with that" can result in watching in painful silence while a loved one tries and fails to manage eating a bowl of soup from a spoon held in a trembling hand. If inserting dignity into the situation, rather than dealing with the mess (or eating the soup) is the objective, perhaps it's not so hard. Make the soup texture the common enemy - "look at how they make the soup so runny these days! It's probably a cost cutting measure. Let's see what's in the fridge - maybe we can use that soup as a base for stew. Mashed potatoes here we come!" Because dignity is the objective and enabled autonomy is the means to the end, the words come out in ways that are conspiratorial, empathetic, light-hearted and conversational.

But, what of asking for help? Should we expect our charge to be aware of preserving dignity in herself as well as her caregiver? I believe we should. Take the case of our son. He has very severe cerebral palsy, but that hasn't stopped him exercising terrible manners over the years. A disability is no excuse for rude or self-centred behavior in our house. So, when I walk into his room in the morning and it's Mother's Day, for example, I might hear a demand to change the channel on television. I want to correct, but not demean, so Nick will laugh as he tells people that my response will be "Nick, I'm going to walk out of your room and walk in again. We're going to say good morning properly next time so repeat after me, 'Good morning, Mom! You look especially fantastic today!' (I jazz up the compliments so we can both laugh, but he gets the point of the exercise.) And for those who aren't aware, Nicholas is non-speaking. But his language comprehension is near-perfect and if he manages to blow me a kiss the second time around entering his room, I take that as a respectful morning greeting.

I still don't know how to begin a conversation with a homeless person I've never met. I don't know how I would end that conversation, if I ever did manage to begin. The language of care is very tricky and fraught with emotion. But one thing that my gut tells is right: we must begin with love and dignity. Perhaps the words will follow.

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  1. Firehorse's Avatar
    Yesterday morning I walked out of a Peet's Coffee, got into my Prius. I noticed a homeless man sitting next to it smoking, and drinking a cup. My dog was barking in the hatchback, and I opened the windows all the way. The man looked up, so I said to him, "He likes my pickup truck much better! But I like getting 45 mpg over 14!!!! The next thing I know, we were talking about the differences between the amount of pollution in the production to usage of, bio-diesel vs methane, and gasoline in cars. Quite an unexpected, interesting and informative conversation. I ended up making myself late....
  2. Donna Thomson's Avatar
    Cool! I saw a news item recently in which social scientists made people on subways talk to the person sitting next to them. At first, people were horrified (I'll be so bored, or I'm so busy that I don't have time - I might miss my stop... what will I say??? etc. etc.). Well, the results were that everyone really really enjoyed the chat and each felt much better, happier, more positive about their day. That's one of the reasons I'm so interested in art forms that bring people together and get them talking. People start connecting instead of going around in an anti-social bubble (which really hurts people with disabilities and the elderly especially).
    Updated 06-15-2014 at 03:26 PM by Donna Thomson (Style.)
  3. Earth Mother 2 Angels's Avatar
    ((((((Donna)))))) ~

    As always, another thought-provoking post. The best ice breaker is "Hello" or "Good Morning" spoken with a sincere smile. We need to learn to set aside our fear of people, who are homeless, disabled, or elderly to be more comfortable in communicating with them. And we have to be open minded and attentive to those, whose verbal communication skills are limited or non-existent, and those whose conditions cause them to be confused or forgetful. This takes practice and patience.

    But all of this begs the question: Why, in 2014, when billions are spent on World Cup Soccer and purchases of NBA teams and political candidates, are any human beings lying on the street for us to step over or help?

    In the broader sense, the language of care should translate into appropriate services for all of our disenfranchised citizens. Because those services are not provided, the overarching message is that these individuals have no value. That perception trickles down into society, and we become detached from our most vulnerable citizens. If we don't value them, then why make the effort to communicate with them?

    We need systemic change. It's overwhelming. But it starts with each of us individually changing our attitudes and our opinions to reflect compassion toward those, who are the "least among us," seeing them as "the greatest."
  4. Donna Thomson's Avatar
    As always, Rose, you speak wisdom and truth. We have become detached from our most vulnerable citizens and I think this trend is increasing, not decreasing. I remember a social experiment where the world famous violinist Joshua Bell played in a subway station and put out a hat. People pay hundreds of dollars to hear him play in concert halls! But as a poor busker, people just walked past and never looked or listened. Here;s the amazing video: As you say, we just don't value people who look marginalized in some way. And look what we lose when we don't look or listen!
  5. Mike Weins's Avatar
    Some homeless people want to/like being homeless. Some homeless panhandlers actually aren't but make good money panhandling. However for those that want help, there isn't enough to go around :(
  6. Earth Mother 2 Angels's Avatar
    Donna ~ I agree that the trend of devaluation of our most vulnerable citizens is on the rise. After the tragic death of a homeless man in our area, residents gathered in protest and declared justice and fair treatment for our homeless population. Local politicians began planning a homeless shelter, and the citizens did not want it anywhere close to their homes, stores, businesses, parks, so their protests shifted in the opposite direction.

    Taking this beyond the homeless crisis in our first world countries, devaluation applies to our disabled and elderly population. Services and programs to assist in their care, allowing them to remain in their own homes, and dying with dignity, are always the first on any state's budget chopping block. The reams of "begging letters" I have written in the last 45 years to legislators and governors in our state would fill a warehouse. And this year, as we wait for the final state budget, is no exception.

    I forgot to compliment you on your caring approaches and language in your examples of how we can improve our care giving. Nick's greeting of you was particularly perfect. And you're so right that we tend to do whatever needs doing ourselves, then natter on about something to distract our loved one's attention.

    Mike ~ The majority of our homeless population suffer from an untreated mental illness, often schizophrenia. Many of them are veterans. The folks in our area, who are homeless, don't panhandle. They scavenge or rely on the kindness of restaurants in the area handing them food out the back door. Our mental health care and VA care are pitifully inadequate. That's why they are on the streets and camping in the woods. It's up to every one of us to change the status quo. To me that is the language of care in action.

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