Who Cares?

Well into her 90s, Mary Chinn, my mother, continued to walk a mile a day, clean her kitchen floor on her hands and knees, and take care of all housework in the Kansas home she and Dad built a half century ago.

A few weeks ago Mom, now 94, fell in her home one evening and broke her hip. After hip surgery and a couple weeks in rehab, Mom returned to her life in her beloved home. But, it was not going to be that simple. An array of services and personnel seemed to move in with her. They were all fine people and they supplied essential services – meals, laundry, physical therapy, etc.

We were all grateful.

But that beautiful care rode in on cold steel efficiency. For example, a simple medical alert button, worn around the neck, came with requirements that would steal some humanity. My brother Carl happened to be at Mom’s when the nurse gave instructions about the button. He explained it all in an email to our brother Vernon and me,

“Paramedics will go straight to the refrigerator when they come into the home of an elderly patient with a button. They want to see medical care contacts posted right there, a calendar of her medical care, and any DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) letter. But in order for all that to happen, a lot of pictures of grandchildren, friends, missionaries, and funny clippings from 40 years ago must be taken away.”

That Ragged Old Flag

Mom was also told that she couldn’t walk into her own yard; the lawn did not provide sufficient stability; she could trip and fall. Of course, we understood.

But then Mom began to get uncharacteristically cranky. She pushed back against her caregivers. She seemed to need to reclaim her space.

And then Vernon noticed something. Her irritation seemed related to the US flag that has flown from its mount in the front yard for several decades. When Vernon told me that I realized that Mom had mentioned that flag in every conversation I’d had with her for several weeks.

Then we all began to get it.

No one will ever understand Mom apart from Dad. And no one will ever understand Dad apart from his service on the USS Princeton in World War 2. He was on board the Princeton when she was commissioned and he was still on board October 24, 1944 when she was bombed and slid under the water to her grave. Dad was one of the survivors. October 24 was almost as large as Thanksgiving in our house.

That flag meant something – no, that’s not right; it meant everything – to Dad. He knew and followed all the rules of displaying an American flag. And when he fell in his last battle, Mom picked up the flag. She had to carry it; in death, Dad’s mission became hers.

And then one day, strangers, 70 years her junior, walked into her home and told her to stop it.

What Are We Doing To Others?

Institutions can deliver services, but they cannot care. Whatever they design will inevitably dehumanize the very people they serve. Care must be delivered in a human way or it will feel imposed. In other words, a “what” cannot care; only a “who” cares.

Jesus spoke the most perfect law of all time: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

The pure inability to even see that simple law may be why we end up with a health care system that makes a 94-year-old woman gaze at her own DO NOT RESUSCITATE order every time she goes to her refrigerator. And, of course, we understand that it’s an acceptable trade-off, that she must remove a half-century of photos and corny jokes in order to make room for those officious 8 and ½ by 11-inch papers.

We live in an age of professional caregivers. But those who care must first see and engage those in need. And that begins with the simple and very human wonder of making eye contact. Look at the person. See and anticipate his or her true needs. Stand there until you understand the nooks and nuances of another human’s life. Ask questions of them and those near them.

For example, shouldn’t caregivers give enough attention to know if an elderly person would prefer to fall in her own front yard, caring for the flag, than wasting away in a shivering fetal curl at the nursing home when she’s 106?

What if…we could all actually take time to understand other people’s needs, fears, priorities, and values? Do you think that might help us to do unto others what we would like others to do to us?

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Written by on Thursday, April 13, 2017

Filed Under: Care,Efficiency,Respect

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18 Responses to “Who Cares?”

  1. Glen Roachelle says:

    Oh my heart breaks for your dear mother, Mary. This is so close to our family also. An 87 year-old sister of my wife, Roberta, lives in Florida. She had her life unalterably changed 2 years ago, by a series of strokes. Now she lives with her grandson, and his live-in girlfriend has become her caregiver. She struggles to walk and has great difficult speaking.

    She occupies only a small room in a cluttered house, and she has great difficulty putting her thoughts into words now. Recently, we went to visit her. She finally got a few words put together to tell Roberta: “I am so tired, and I just want to go home (heaven).”

    We will be praying for your Mary and all of you as you “do unto her” what she needs and so richly deserves.

    • Ed Chinn says:

      Thank you, Glen. It sure seems like most of my/our friends are caught in the same situation, the same crisis of care. Roberta’s sister’s comments remind me of my own Grandpa Chinn. He was like a man who had his bags packed and waiting on the porch for the cab! He didn’t want to have long conversations; he was focused on getting to leave. And all of that really is a test of “the golden rule.”

  2. Eddie Chinn says:

    “What if…we could all actually take time to understand other people’s needs, fears, priorities, and values?”

    Putting on this pair of glasses, in my opinion, is one of the critical factors behind true customer service as well.

    As one who interacts with customer employees on a daily basis, I strive to deliver the directive — Yes, there is a process that I must follow, but how can I implement that and not mess up your world.

    This is excellent, Dad. Thank you.

  3. Pam O'Shields says:

    Ed,
    I’m so touched by this!
    I do have a suggestion about the DNR and list of medications that might help. In a Chronic Conditions class I took a couple of years ago, they gave us a red plastic bottle to put INSIDE the fridge to hold all that lovely paperwork. It was marked with a logo of some sort and had a convenient twist on top. I can’t help with the flag situation, but maybe this might allow your Mom to keep her pictures in their rightful place. I am going to see if I can either find mine or obtain another. These were given out by the Arlington, TX Fire Department.

    • Ed Chinn says:

      Thanks, Pam. And I do appreciate your suggestion (which we pursued by email). As I told you, we did find an alternative that was less intrusive. But that red plastic bottle really looks like a great option.

  4. Terry Plunkett says:

    Ed, I find this all too familiar. As our bullet proof parents age, it is so hard to reconcile their independence with their physical abilities. After my mom died we had to watch dad struggle with remaining independent but being very dependent on others. Legally blind and diabetic it was very difficult for him to admit he needed help. In hindsight we probably let him stay in his house too long, but that is 20/20 vision. In the end all we could do is be there and love him for who he is/was.

    • Ed Chinn says:

      This is excellent, Terry. Thank you. Your story is exactly why civilizations develop institutional responses to care. We all reach a point where there is no other alternative. The load just breaks down the familial resources and strength. Everyone says they’ll never put Dad in a nursing home. Yet, eventually they do…because they must.

  5. Respect for our loved one’s desires is the operative word here. Often, the caregivers do what THEY think is best for the one they are caring for, without even considering the desires of the one they care for. It’s much more challenging to get inside the heart of that one who needs care and to provide what THEY need or desire. Sometimes, it’s not possible to do what they desire, but at least our loved ones should see us struggle with that delicate balance.

    In my work as a child psychologist, it’s my privilege to enter a child’s world in order to understand that child’s motives, desires, needs, pain. But entering it I must — if I am going to be of any good to that child. Above all, I deeply respect the child’s desires and needs when I make recommendations for therapy.

    The same is true for the elderly or for anyone who is powerless over his life’s circumstances. I hope and pray that when my time comes to be cared for, that my caregivers show that kind of respect to me as they “do unto others …”

    • Ed Chinn says:

      What a great guidelines: “enter into their world” and “respect their desires and needs.” And, because I know you, I know you didn’t read that in a book! Some things are only taught by experience. Thank you so much.

  6. Cindy Bumps says:

    My dad and step-mom have a 3 ring binder with plastic sleeves to put all important papers and all instructions from doctors and family. They also have lined paper for daily note taking and giving. It sits on the counter in the kitchen where everyone can see it, but not as intrusive as on the fridge. It is a constant daily battle as to what is good for them to do, and what is dangerous. Lord help us to help them do as much as they are able during this season of their lives. We do care!!!

    • Ed Chinn says:

      Thanks, Cindy. The binder is a good idea. But I think the issue comes down to “standardization.” In other words, the EMT team wants something that is standardized for everyone. They would probably not want everyone being creative with 3-ring binders, cork boards, or other display preferences.

      And I can understand that the EMT team wants to operate like a Seal Team…get in, do the job, get out.

  7. Deana says:

    I loved this Ed :). Thank you so much. I whole-heartily agree!

  8. Beth Hill says:

    Recently, I have been reading a lot about the need to “keep order” in America. What sort of steps do institutions take to keep order? What do the police do? What does the Warden at a prison do? What does the professional caregiver do to keep order? How much does it have to do with trying to understand another? My answer today is – not much. The objective, first and foremost, is to keep order.

    • Ed Chinn says:

      That’s really interesting, Beth. Like all of life, we have to find the balance between freedom and order. And I can certainly see the value of an objective system of care. It does bring order to the process. You ask a great question here. “How much does that have to do with trying to understand another?” Thanks.

  9. Lucy Sebastian says:

    These thoughts are so true and critical to a persons wholeness. In my experience, I Never wanted sympathy. I desperately desired and needed understanding as much as – if not more than – physical assistance.

    • Ed Chinn says:

      Thank you, Lucy. Because you passed through the valley of the shadow, your words carry weight. “Understanding” is one of the largest issues in life. Thank you.

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