Archive for December, 2010

The Way We Were

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

Hesiod, 8th century BCE

Did you ever notice how much better things were, how much nicer people used to be, how much simpler things were in the past?

John Oliver of The Daily Show conducts an excellent investigation of how much “better” things were, before. His conclusion at the end, that the television persona in question are actually memorializing their childhood understanding of the world, is pretty spot-on, too.

I remember watching a television show about Pompeii when I was a teenager. I was stunned when the narrator translated some of the graffiti on the walls of the city. Until that point, I had unknowingly succombed* to the brain-washing that things were “better” before, that people were nice, gentler, and more refined. There was no graffiti in my imagined ancient world.

But here were people from centuries ago who were nasty, spiteful, and probably litterers to boot.

I wonder why we have such a desire to wax nostalgic about the past.

After all, the 1950’s, perhaps one of the most nostalgized (not a real word) eras of American history, was a terrible time for most people. It was a time of fear and McCarthyism, a time when folks who weren’t white males were routinely and systematically denied civil and human rights.

The 1950’s were not a shining moment in American history. Yet it’s regularly mythologized into an era of domestic peace (ignore bomb shelters and church bombs) and prosperity (ignore unemployment and underemployment among people of color and white women).

We yearn for the good old days, without wondering if they actually were good, and for whom.

* Of course, that’s the definition of “brain-washing”, isn’t it, unknowingly succombing to a way of thinking.

Kindness and Little White Lies

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

I subscribe to the point of view that one oughtn’t lie.

Honesty is important: dissembling breaks down communication and trust since you don’t know what you can count on.

Given how strongly I feel about telling the truth, I was surprised when I didn’t have any problems with the “little white lie” of The Bus Stop, a brilliant Radiolab program about an old folks home in Germany.

The Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf, Germany, is home to a number of residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. A difficulty in caring for folks with Alzheimer’s and dementia is that they’ll often slip into a different reality, thinking they must go home to their mother, go to work, go meet friends or family, not recognizing that they now live in a nursing home. In these episodes these folks can be so convinced of their reality that it can be extremely difficult to dissuade them from taking actions that can be disorienting or even harmful.

For example, they might wander to their old neighborhood and find someone in their former home. Or they could venture into snow storms with little clothing as did the producer’s grandfather.

Imagine if you were going about your day, getting ready for work, when someone you don’t recognize suddenly appeared at your side and told you that you mustn’t go to work, that you haven’t worked in thirty years, and that you must stay in strange, unfamiliar surroundings. You might well get upset and wonder who this person thought they were. Or you might get really scared. Were you being kidnapped? Generally, our first response to danger or fear is to want to be close to your loved ones. Yet this person is trying to keep you from your loved ones and your known associates. This could be extremely distressing. I know I’d be upset.

The staff at the Benrath Senior Center found that restraining residents or arguing with them about their lives were unsuccessful coping strategies. Instead, they tried something novel.

They installed a bus stop outside their building: a bus stop that went no where. The idea’s proponent, Franz-Josef Göbel, reasoned that when residents become deluded, they often want to travel somewhere. He thought of installing a bus stop because it’s a common starting point for any trip.

Now, when a resident is convinced that they must go somewhere or meet someone, the staff at the senior center agree that it’s important and suggest that the resident go to the bus stop to wait for the bus. While waiting for the bus, the resident calms down. A staff member comes to sit with them and eventually suggests they go back inside, perhaps for a cup of tea. The residents return to the senior center in a more peaceful state of mind.

Yet, as one of the commentators in the program observed, it’s a lie. The bus stop is a lie, since no bus will ever arrive.

I wonder, though, is it a lie?

For there to be a lie, there first must be a shared understanding of truth. But in this case, the residents and the staff sometimes have wildly divergent perceptions of truth and reality. It’s already been the senior center’s experience that denying the residents’ deluded experience is not a successful strategy. In the Radiolab program, one staff member said that sometimes even the police needed to be called in order to restrain a deluded resident. This cannot be an ideal outcome.

In this context, the bus stop, instead of facilitating a transition from one physical place to another physical place, facilitates a transition from one state of mind to another. In essence, the bus stop is a place of transition, and the Benrath Senior Center has developed a beautiful way to meet people where they are and gently, gently bring them back into the present.