Saturday, 27 January 2018


Recently, a friend and I railed at how homeless people on the street are ignored.  "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 - maybe we've 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.  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 independence' that we strive for in our caring relationships.  

If we want to help someone be independent (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 independent 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 about asking for help for ourselves?  The blog post on this site with greatest number of views (almost 16,000) is 'Saying I'm Fine When I'm Not'. We all have lots of good reasons for not wanting to answer anything but "I'm fine" when someone asks how we are doing. We may believe (correctly) that someone else would never understand the nature of our care challenges. We might believe that by saying "I'm not fine, we need help at home" seems like a betrayal of your loved one or simply a declaration of personal failure. But, what if we thought of this moment as an invitation for another person to contribute - in a way that will make them feel good while it helps you? When conversation begins to flow naturally, and we find the words to be honest and the patience to listen, we experience the relief that a truthful conversation can bring. In this space, offers can be made, opportunities for giving and taking can be accepted - or not. The thought "You would never understand" morphs into the spoken words "we would really appreciate a meal one night next week - whatever night works for you, just let me know."

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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