Monday, October 12, 2015

The Very Least

It's Thanksgiving Sunday. We are just back, and we are tired. The grocery store is busy. Ahead of us is a young woman, a personal support worker, for an elderly woman. The line up isn't long, but it's slow. We had crossed paths with the two of them several times while shopping. The staff seems efficient at getting the woman through the store and getting groceries into the cloth bag she carries.

While waiting in the line up the elderly woman turns and asks, in a soft and trembling voice, "When did he die? When did my son die." The staff, answered, her voice flat, like she's answered the question before, "Three years ago."

Her answer, and her tone of voice, seems to bring the conversation to a close.

A few moments later it is revived, "What day did he die? I can't remember."

"I don't remember the date your son died, I know it was about three years ago."

"You don't remember? I've told you before, I know I've told you"

"You've told me but I don't remember."

Tears start falling, "I can't remember. I can't remember the date. Now the anniversary of his death feels like every day, because I can't remember."

"My job is to help you shop and to help you with your meals."

"But I need you to help me remember when he died."

"It was three years ago."

"The date, I need to know the date.

Now she is crying harder, "I need you to help me shop but I need you to help me remember. My son. He died. I can remember his birthday, but I can't remember, I never remember, the date he died."

The staff mutters, we can all hear, "My job is to help you shop and to help you with your meals, he's not my damn son, I don't need to remember when he died."

There is shock in the line up.

She sees the looks, she feels the pressure, she tries to make it better, to look better, "When we get home, I'll look up the date for you, it's with your papers in the hall cabinet isn't it."

But there is no consolation now.

"I need to remember, I need to remember now. He was a good son." She is crying hard but quietly, she is guided to sit on her stroller. "No one cares, no one cares but me, and I don't remember, what kind of mother am I? I need your help to remember."

She turns to us, the helper does, "This happens all the time, she gets agitated."

She is hoping that the medical sounding term, "agitated," will make it all go way and explain away the behaviour of the old woman. She says again, "I'm just here to help her shop and make her dinner."

It doesn 't work.

People look away in disgust.

The woman behind me, to me, loudly, "She says this happens all the time. What would it take for her to just remember when the old woman's son died? She has a job because she has trouble remembering, then remember for her! Getting the shopping done, getting meals prepared may be her job. But remembering for someone who can't, there is where the honour lies. The absolute honour. I'm sorry but I can't take this any more." She pulled out of the line up, put her cart to the side and begins to leave.

The staff says to her, as she is leaving, "You don't know what it's like."

She stops, her cart pushed to the side, "I do know what it's like to forget. That's why I'm upset. When I need help, I hope I get what I need, promise me you'll do more than your job, promise me you'll remember what she needs remembered."

But she didn't wait for an answer. She left. The woman, who's son died, is sitting, hearing none of this, on her walker. crying.

The staff, seeing that everything is all out of control, says to no one in particular, "I promise, but it's not my job."

I say, "But it is, it is."

She glares at me, then looks at Joe, for solidarity thinking he's my staff, "They always want more, dont' they?"

Joe, angered, like all the rest in the line up, answers, "Remembering an important date, for someone who can't remember isn't 'more' it's 'the very least.'"

The check out woman moves the line along.


Unknown said...

That wretched woman should not be allowed the honor of assisting anyone. With shopping or remembering. Joe is so very right.

clairesmum said...

so glad that this time the collective response was not indifference and feigned ignorance, but shared disgust and response to the 'staff' that she was the one who was unreasonable (at the least) and that nobody was fooled by her attempt to 'blame' the elderly lady.
maybe the response will help the staff person change her ways, or decide that she wants a different type of job (that would be progress!)

Colleen said...

Joe said exactly the right thing. I hope the support worker learned what her job really is.

I was reading something about euthanasia the other day. A woman who was dying talked about people having the opportunity to care for another person. As a society we don't see care as an opportunity - a job maybe, a burden, but not a gift. I think we are in trouble if we don't get this.

Anonymous said...

So sad. The way I see it, it's the support workers job to discuss with the woman perhaps getting a locket or wallet card or even smartphone with a lock screen picture, a photo of the son and the date he died.
And that all comes under, 'help with shopping'.
How has the support work disconnected from heart and imagination??
Whose responsibility is it to attempt reconnect?

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness. Absolutely heartbreaking. To not be able to remember and then to be written off as 'agitated' and ignored... I hope the lady was able to take comfort in the fact that people stood up for her. I hope she has someone in her life to help her remember, to comfort her when her staff clearly is unwilling to try.


Anonymous said...

Way back when, when I was just a student social worker intern, I was given a client who I was told often became "agitated" and grouchy. It is true that he did sometimes become angry ... on occasions when he was frustrated with information that wasn't clear for him, or unexpected changes etc. And once he became angry when a pair of social workers were having a conversation about him in front of him without letting him join in. But if I exhibited patience and took the time to listen to what he was saying, he usually calmed down pretty quickly. In hindsight it seems more obvious to me that the real problem that other social workers had with him is that he was having natural reactions to people dismissing his agency or not taking the time to ensure he understood things. But at the time I was inexperienced and lacking in confidence so I thought the "experts" knew what they were talking about, so I was too hesitant to try introducing a new perspective. Sometimes I wish I could go back and "do over" my internship period with the client and try harder to intervene with his primary social worker. The client died some years after my internship (he was already elderly when I first met him) so it's too late now.

Tragic Sandwich said...

I'm so glad so many people spoke up. She needs to know that people react that way, that their expressions were about her and not about the woman she was assisting (not really helping).

"Help with shopping" means getting through the experience, not just picking up items and putting them in a cart.

ABEhrhardt said...

My grandmother used to get agitated. It was at sundown. When she knew she should be heading to her own home.

She would ask every five minutes, "Isn't it time for me to go home?"

My father was the soul of patience. He must have answered her thirty or forty times on a given day. They couldn't leave yet - Mexico City traffic is horrible, and you don't leave at the wrong time or you will have a VERY long trip, and Mamina lived on the opposite side of the city.

This is called respect.

I miss my Daddy. He died in Aug. 2014. But his lessons live on.

wheeliecrone said...

Oh, Joe. Thank you for understanding about the great tragedies that can occur in a person's life and the respect that each person is due.

Two terrible tragedies: the loss of a child and the loss of memory. Both those losses deserve respect and, if possible, empathy.

How fortunate that the lady was in a place where there were people who recognised her tragedies and saw her as a bereaved person, not as a nuisance.

And Joe was able to stand up for the lady, and counsel the ignorant, unsympathetic staff.

Well done, Joe. As usual.

B. said...

Very sad. I mean (not just the situation for the lady who forgot the date) the attitude of the worker is sad. It was rather disgusting how she really doesn't care and thought Joe would support her. I know this from helpers for my physical limitations; will I experience double whammies with additional age related needs?!

Ettina said...

I worked with a person who asked repetitive questions once. Not exactly the same issue - instead of an older person with memory issues asking about what happened in the past, this person was a young child with a strong need for routine asking what would happen in the future ('what are we doing next?').

My solution? To simply get a copy of the schedule and point it out & explain it every time this little girl asked. The fact that she was asking over and over meant she needed to be told the answer over and over. (After awhile, I shifted to asking her to answer her own question, which she could do easily and seemed to be just as effective at reassuring her. But that wouldn't have worked if she had memory problems.)

Repetitive questions indicate a need for repetitive answers. If you can't deal with that, then you shouldn't work with a client who needs that.

Anonymous said...

I can't help thinking of a famous like from Dave H. in the Conversations That Matter: "YOU'RE GETTING PAID!" This worker acted like everyone should sympathize with HER problems rather than the problems of the elderly lady who wanted to remember. YOU'RE GETTING PAID. But that's her LIFE. Helping her with what SHE articulates a need for help with is the way to do your JOB with respect and honor for both yourself and the people you serve. Thank you for sharing this!

Anonymous said...

I think the message that all of you gave to the worker was a powerful and important one, but I wonder about the woman who listened, while her questions were unaswered.

What if someone had side stepped the worker and approached the woman. You might not have known when her son died, but you could have said, "Your son sounds wonderful, I'm sorry I never got to know him, and that I don't know when he died. Will you tell me something you remember about him so I can remember him too?"

I've been a direct care worker, and while I agree I would have made an effort to remember or write something down in this case, there were absolutely times (e.g. the first time I was with someone, and didn't anticipate what they'd ask) when I didn't know the specific piece of information. I feel as though acknowledging the underlying need, in this case the need to know that her son was remembered, and to share her memory of her wonderful son with someone else, was often the best I could do to alleviate the anxiety in those circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I did feel sorry for the worker. Having a mother that is confused and dealing with her all the time, it is almost impossible to anticipate what she will fix on at any period of time. Sometimes the topic is something that will take her down a rabbit trail of grieve or agitation, so even though I know the answer, I choose not to answer. I give generalizations to avoid problems. In my past job, I was paid to do certain things, that is what I am to do. I was not to cross the line. I was not paid to or equipped to deal with other matters. Some times this causes frustration to the client, but that is not my area of expertise. I would make sure to pass on the concern, the question, or some way to source the concern. To expect the worker who obvious had guidelines to anticipate all questions is unrealistic. To have the whole line turn on her was a bit cruel. We can all come up with ideas to problem solve, but that is a privilege of reflection.