Saturday 30 June 2018

What The Power of Kindness Means to Caregivers

I read books in different ways. Sometimes I devour a mystery on the beach in a single day. Other times, I savour ideas slowly over time, bit by bit. 

I finished Dr. Brian Goldman's The Power of Kindness a couple of weeks ago, but I've had a long time to mull it over. I'd seen the pre-release notices about the book and was excited to read it. I've always believed that the connection between the theme of kindness and caregiving is a vital topic for anyone who cares about social inclusion and community. So, it was on the evening of April 27th that I settled into a pew at Ottawa's Christ Church Cathedral for Dr. Goldman's Writer's Festival book launch. It was a sold-out event for good reason. We were enthralled, sometimes shocked and at other moments delighted by Dr. Goldman's stories of human kindness discovered the world over. 

What interested me most was the story of what prompted him to write this book. Brian Goldman is an emergency room doctor when he's not hosting his popular CBC radio show, White Coat, Black Art. One evening in his crowded ER, a family arrived. A woman was in the last stages of a degenerative disease and her husband and adult children had brought her to die in hospital when they realized they could not provide adequate comfort care at home. Goldman was stressed that night and was abrupt with the family, perhaps even rude. The woman was admitted and shortly afterwards, she died. Weeks later, a letter appeared on Dr. Goldman's desk. It was from the husband of the woman, asking for a meeting. The family wanted to address Dr. Goldman's behaviour in the ER and they wished to forgive him. Goldman took the meeting, tears were shed and the author's quest began, both to locate the roots of his own (lost) kindness and the nature of some of the world's kindest souls.

Every chapter of The Power of Kindness tells a story of someone whose life and work exemplifies caring and empathy. Like Goldman, I was seeking clues to my own capacity for kindness in each story and because I'm already sure that caring is in my nature, I gravitated to chapters about extraordinary 'empaths - heroes of caring kindness. I learned about Mackin, a New York bartender, who has taken on the role of convening and supporting 9/11 first responders. Mackin understands that bringing together people who have shared a painful, life-changing experience requires stepping back without judgement. If the customers don't want to talk, "You leave them be", he says. "A good bartender orchestrates", Mackin muses. "He makes sure the right people sit next to each other." So, I learn, kindness isn't always about inserting yourself in a social situation. Often, it's about setting a scene and then stepping back.

For me, the most moving stories in The Power of Kindness were about those people who are working face to face with marginalized individuals (as in the case of a Brazilian woman who created an extraordinary friendship with a homeless poet) or Mary Gordon who founded Roots of Empathy, a teaching programme for elementary school children. Gordon's model is simple but powerful. She links new parents living locally with classes of young children. Regular visits of parents and baby demonstrate intimacy, growth, nurturing and natural care. Naomi Feil was another of Goldman's exemplars of kindness and her story is truly inspiring. Feil grew up in a nursing home (her parents worked there) and there, she began to discover ways to communicate with the 'lost souls' of dementia and Alzheimer's. Her approach, called 'validation therapy', is poignantly demonstrated in Goldman's book. It's the chapter that made me cry.

I was mystified but intrigued by the author's decision to include care robots - one of Japan's responses to their national problem of a rapidly aging population, dearth of caregivers and widespread social isolation. I certainly don't want a robot caring for me or anyone I love, but Goldman's description of how some folks perceive human kindness in electronics was interesting, especially because some Japanese Alzheimer's patients apparently become animated in conversation with robots, but not with humans. I wondered about the cultural differences inherent in kindness and also what mysteries of authentic communication with dementia patients can be revealed through robotics.

I recommend The Power of Kindness to anyone who, like me, is fascinated with the topic of empathy especially as it relates to natural care. And a great companion text for me was On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor - it's an exploration of the history of human kindness and why it's become our guilty pleasure and contemporary taboo. As they say, "Today, kindness is only for those who don't have the guts to be anything else." Where you stand on the subject of kindness, compassion and empathy, these books give us reasons to bring kindness out of the closet as a bona fide virtue - one that we can claim as central to family caregiving. 

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