Sunday, September 13, 2009

Get the family talking! 60 minutes of a magical transformation...

I recently had the opportunity of listening to Dr Jerald Winakur, Geriatric Physician and Author, share his experience being a caregiver to his elderly parents. I'm not really an avid fan of attending talks and presentations in general, but there were a few things that Dr Winakur spoke about that touched a chord. Because they were personal. And because of the stories he shared about his family... which reminded me of my own. As they probably did for the other 150 people in the room.

His mother was nearly blind in her old age, he said, and his father's mind had been claimed by Dementia and Alzheimer's. (If I get any of the facts wrong, I apologize... but the gist is that in their old age, his parents became very different people from who they were when he was growing up.) This is a tough transition for anyone to cope with... and there wasn't a dry eye in the room full of 'regular' people who at some stage in their life, have found themselves stepping into the role of caregiver to a spouse, parent, relative or friend.

What was remarkable about the presentation was that Dr Winakur had everyone's undivided attention and emotional involvement. And by the end of his talk, people were lauding him and members of his family as if they had known them their entire life. Whereas the truth is that just an hour earlier, nobody in the room even knew what his parents' names were or what they wore on their wedding day or what they had done on their 60th anniversary. But at the end of the 60 minutes, everyone knew all that and more. They knew they had shared a loving life together. That underneath the ravages of old age, they were still young at heart. And that they were like their own parents or relatives... they were like any other family.

How did he achieve this?

He achieved it with stories. And he achieved it with photographs. His entire presentation - and indeed his book - is about his experience of being the son of his father. A father who had Dementia. And a son who is a doctor.

In the telling of his story, it is hard to say what he achieved on a personal level. Was it the relief of 'understanding'? Was it redemption? Was it to assuage the guilt that accompanies all children looking after their parents? Was it relief that in hindsight he had been a good son to a wonderful set of parents? Was it to leave behind a realistic picture of his father to his children and their children... who had never known him before Dementia? Was it a tribute to a man he truly loved? Maybe it was all this. Maybe it was none of this.

In the act of 'listening', what was it that the members of the audience achieved? Reassurance that they were not alone in what they were feeling and experiencing? Hope that there will be good days along with the bad? A sense of community? Solidarity? Support?

Whatever it was, the stories drew everyone together. Suddenly the room was abuzz with portraits of relatives and loved ones.

'I remember...'
'She used to love to...'
'One day, he turned to me...'
'I'll miss the way she...'

Everyone was talking. And sharing. And crying. And laughing. It was a relief to realize that they remembered so much. There was a desperate need to share it. To pass on the memories. To heal and to exorcise.

That is the power of stories. And if someone hadn't opened the floodgates, those stories would have withered away unspoken. The people in the stories would have faded away unacknowledged. And nobody in the room would have turned to their neighbor to smile, or squeeze their hand or just nod in understanding. It would have continued to be a room full of strangers.

What a waste of an hour that would have been.

And what a waste of a lifetime of stories it is when no one else gets to hear them.


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