When I ask rehab patients about the precipitating event that brought them to therapy, they can at least answer the question. Maybe they tripped on a zucchini vine, slipped on a grape in the grocery store or toppled off a bicycle while swerving to avoid a raccoon, but at least they know what happened.
Not me. I just woke up one day last week, breathless and immobile with back pain, shaking my fists at the gods and moaning, “Poor, poor pitiful me.” See? That story is not only boring, it’s way too short.
If I were a writer without integrity, I’d make up some spicy details and not even feel that bad about adding them. Actually, I just remembered — while bending over to hand an ice-cream cone to a crying child, I was struck on the trapezius by a falling American Airlines dinner roll. It was horribly painful, especially the abrasions from the sesame seeds raking across my back. Poor, poor pitiful me.
That would be much more exciting and fun to talk about, agreed? But instead, I just feel incapacitated and infirm, without an interesting tale to tell. That’s the ultimate lose-lose indignity.
I mention this because it’s given me a sudden window into the frustration our residents and therapy patients must feel to be suddenly and unexpectedly unable to do what they love. Even though my situation pales in scope and gravity to what many of them are facing, and I have little doubt I’ll ultimately fully recover, I’m still discouraged and angry about it. So whatever they feel and however they express it is entirely understandable.
My back is sore, but Ed isn’t sure he’ll ever walk again. Who knows how I’d react in a similar situation, given how angry I am at this minor inconvenience?
Actually, I do know, because my trivial situation offers a disturbing window into how I’ll probably behave as an actual nursing home resident needing long-term care. Take away my functionality, add a dollop of severe pain and throw in a heaping scoop of dementia and I’ll be a rage-filled casserole of unmet need and bad behavior. Whoever has to take care of me will long for the days before antipsychotic reduction initiatives, that’s for sure.
That’s one of many reasons I so admire therapists, nurses and anyone delivering direct care. They seem to intuitively understand the existential anguish a person goes through when they’re suddenly disconnected from what they’ve always been and done. They never give up seeking the root cause and unmet need, because they know it has to be in there somewhere, even if the resident can’t express it.
Most important, they’re infinitely patient and without judgment, understanding they can’t possibly know what’s going on inside the mind of another human — especially one in severe pain. They don’t take an angry outburst personally. They don’t judge the intent. They just keep caring and smiling and looking for any possible way to provide comfort and support.
Judging from my current experience, if — or more likely, when — one of life’s cataclysms brings me to long-term care, I’ll still be singing, “Poor, poor pitiful me,” while my therapists and care providers keep grinning and bearing it. Whatever I say or do, however negatively or hurtfully I behave, they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt.
But knowing me, it won’t be easy. To paraphrase that classic Warren Zevon song, “Lord, have mercy on them.”
Things I Think is written by injury-prone Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former SNALF.com at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.