Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Care Partner Wednesday--The Importance of Meaning to an Elder

The world is divided into two categories: the keeper and the non-keeper. I am not a keeper.

I remember when my children would ask where a certain treasure was—a picture they drew, a one-armed clay figure they constructed, a half-eaten sucker from two weeks ago. I would look puzzled and reply, “I’m not sure.” The full truth, which I will confess decades later, is that I’d thrown it out. I didn’t know where it was. That was true. I did know what had happened to it, but that wasn't the question they asked.

It’s not that I am devoid of sentiment. I am as sentimental as they come, but I can’t stand clutter. Sometimes I keep things for years and then decide it doesn’t have the meaning for me that it once did, so I pitch it.

Before you judge me, let me say I still have the ring bearer’s pillow my mother made for my wedding in 1977. I have a Christmas ornament she made from my wedding dress. I collected a box of special items for each of my children. I treasure a teapot my daughter decorated with my granddaughter’s baby handprints.

It’s all about meaning. The items that have lasting meaning in my life, I treasure.

What happens when an elder comes to a place where they must downsize, and downsize and downsize again? What happens to the pictures, the treasures, the special items that must be sifted through? How do you decide to keep one piece and discard another?

It’s a frustrating truth for those of us who work among elders needing care; they often want to bring too much “stuff.” When people move to one room, it can be a heartbreaking decision to figure out what to bring and what to discard. Years of memories and meaning are packed into each item. How do you throw it out?

I once heard someone speaking with disdain of the “bric-a-brac she never looks at” in a resident’s room. The comment bothered me at the time, but I only lately realized why. That bric-a-brac held invaluable meaning to the elder.
“Meaning is the food and water that nourishes the human spirit. It strengthens us. The counterfeits of meaning tempt us with hollow promises. In the end, they always leave us empty and alone.” 1
This sixth principle of ten in the Eden Alternative, challenges us to look at the “stuff” differently. True, not everything can, or should, be brought to the new room. Decisions need to be made, and some of them will be heartbreaking.  Also, meaning is more about relationships than things. The teapot with the handprints is only important because I remember those tiny, baby hands and have a valuable relationship with the nine-year-old she has become. Yet, because of the relationship, the teapot is invaluable.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
·      What has no value to you may mean the world to me.
·      If I want to understand why something has meaning to you, I can ask. There’s probably an amazing story there.
·      Whether I understand or not, I need to treat the things that have value to you as important.

With these perspectives, there is no bric-a-brac.

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