Gary Tetz

The bed-bound nursing home resident lies on his back, head propped up, TV remote in hand. He’s been in some degree of pain all day, week, month and year, going on several actually.

He’s suffering from long-term maladies for which there will be no magical cure, and feeling symptoms his diminished mental capacity doesn’t allow him to fully understand. Doctors say he’ll be in this bed, or one very much like it, forever.

“What must that be like?”

He’s also alone, in a strange room, with a noisy stranger breathing behind the curtain that splits their space in two. The life he left behind when his body betrayed him is invisible now. His world is right here, his television, water pitcher, box of tissues, a framed photo or two and the occasional visitor. He hears the sounds of life through the door, and sometimes out the window, but can’t get there to embrace it.

“What must that be like?”

He’s angry and bitter, very angry and bitter. He’s getting great care from compassionate people. But nothing he’s experienced at the hands of life is fair, and he’s lashing out, sometimes thoughtless and cruelly, making unfair demands, accusations and inferences to staff, family members and friends. He’s hurting people with his words, sometimes willfully it seems, and creating a mystifying gulf between himself and those who could help him most.

“What must that be like?”

It’s something I think about a lot, and am in no position to answer — yet. But if you’re a family member with a loved one in a long-term care facility, or a staff member delivering care, chances are you’re sometimes the target of their misdirected hostility. That’s where this one little question can make all the difference, and its inherent empathy can be soothing and transforming.

“What must that be like?” It can serve as a mantra, helping us view each interaction, no matter how painful, with acceptance and resilience. It tempers our natural, righteous reactions with a reminder that we have no idea what we’d do or in what ways we’d also lash out, should we find ourselves in a similar position.

What must that be like?”

It takes the edge off their misguided attack, putting things momentarily in perspective. It doesn’t justify their anger, or remove the stab of pain they’re able to unfairly inflict, but it does make it more understandable. It reminds us that even in an eruption of apparently intended cruelty, this person is still doing the best they know to do in navigating life’s most dreaded chapter.

Faced with the sting of a loved one’s baffling aggression, I’m convinced the non-intuitive response is also the best one — to empathize and forgive.

Because until we’re there, walking in their shoes, personally enduring a similar life-shattering circumstance, “What must that be like?” is a question we can ask ourselves but simply can’t answer with any degree of reliability.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.