I first went to camp when I was 12, and it changed me. I discovered this suburban girl had a country heart, and was totally at home in the woods, by the lake and near a campfire. I lived in a cabin with seven other girls, and they became my best friends and confidants over the next ten days. I learned new skills, gained confidence and discovered aspects of myself. God was just a whisper away when I was in the woods.
Two years later was my third year and I was as excited to be going as the other two. But this year there was a difference. My counsellor's name was Ann. Most counsellors chose camp names (Jewel, Buttercup or Peaches) but for some reason, she elected to keep her real name. People would call, “Ann!” and I would answer, and they would reply, “Not you.” Again and again.
The Eden Alternative defines identity, the first domain of well-being as, "Being well known; having personhood; individuality; wholeness; having a history." 1 When people live in medical model long-term care homes, the very nature of living together under the common umbrella of medical need becomes the person's identity. People are defined by where they live (room 226, not Mrs. Jones) what kind of diet they have ("put the feeders together at one table so we can help them") their mobility (how many wheelchairs are there?) and their diseases. They lose who they are outside of their needs. This must no longer be the case! I remember how often in the past we read obituaries for our residents and were surprised by their lives. I am ashamed to admit this. I need to know my residents--not just their jobs, how many children they had and where they travelled, but their personalities, their hopes and dreams, their passions. I need to know how they like their tea, what clothes they like to wear and what's important to them. If I know who they are, then:
• I can talk to them about the things that matter to them.
• I know what they love, and can ensure those activities are available to them.
• I can be familiar to them, and share myself with them every day.
• I can look for ways to celebrate who they are.
• I can introduce them to other residents with similar interests, and give them opportunities to chat.
The domain of identity is why we strive to have regular staff who know the residents. No matter how good a care partner is, if they don't know the resident, it causes confusion and and frustration.
A care partner came to me in distress one day. She was our own staff, but hadn't worked in our neighbourhood before. A lovely, caring, person, she went into Mrs. H.'s room, introduced herself and asked her what she would like to have for breakfast. Mrs. H. became extremely stressed, started crying and threw her out of the room. What had she done wrong?
Nothing. In practically every other case, that would have been exactly the right thing to do. But Mrs. H.'s regular care partner knew what she liked for breakfast, how it was to be prepared, what tray it was to go on and at what temperature it was to be served. As far as Mrs. H. knew, breakfast magically appeared, exactly how she liked it. To go in her room and ask her what she wanted stressed her out!
The next day, I started on a "Growth Plan" for each resident, with as many minute details of how they liked things, and every other detail I could learn about their lives and who they were. New staff check the book before starting each day.
What about care partners who are caring for their loved one at home? "Of course I know her, she's my mother (wife, aunt etc.)" Challenge yourself to know more. Find out stories of their childhood or dating years. Ask questions. Listen. The very act of wanting to know more about me, validates me.
When I know you, it is easier to treat you with respect.
When I know you, I can celebrate who you are.
When I know you, and you know me, love isn't far behind.