Last week I had the chance to visit several people involved with disability. I met with gracious doctors and therapists from a leading rehab hospital, I spent time with the self-giving mom and caregiver of a young man with quadriplegia, and I met some new people too. All positive experiences for which I am grateful.
I also had a good learning experience. It wasn't a positive experience and I didn’t handle it well. I hope that by telling this story you’ll do better than I did.
In addition to the positive visits, I also visited a client who is struggling. He is in a transitional (for him) nursing home that isn’t a place where you or I would want to spend time. The smell of urine wafts through the hallway, staff stands in the corner gossiping, and residents are aimlessly scattered throughout the halls. When I visited there it was late, and I was tired and uncomfortable. I kept my head down and made my way to my client’s room.
When I found the room, the door was propped open and there was an elderly man, essentially naked, within view of anyone who walked down the hall. I knocked on the door, because I didn’t know what else to do, and called out my client’s name. My client answered from the back of the room, so I put my head down and I walked past the elderly man.
I spent about 45 minutes visiting. During that time two staff members came to the room to check on the elderly man. I thought they were re-situating him so that he wouldn’t be so exposed, but when I walked out, he was still nearly naked, clearly uncomfortable, with the door propped open. I walked by again.
This isn’t a story about how “they” should be treating him better – I can’t really know what was going on. It is a story about how I should have treated him better. I tried not to look at him. I was uncomfortable around him. I failed to treat him like a human being. For this I am ashamed, and that is not too strong of a word.
As I get older, I realize that guilty feelings are only valuable if they help me to change. I have a plan, a way to prepare myself so that I don’t fail again to treat the most vulnerable among us with respect. Before going into places like this, I will remind myself of the inherent dignity of every person. I may not be able to change how someone is being cared for, but I can control how I treat them. I will look at each person, I will smile, I will greet them, and if they respond to me, I’ll interrupt my plans, slow down, and be respectful. Everything else must be secondary – because if it isn’t, I'll lose sight of what is most important, which is always people. My schedule and comfort can wait.
I hope that you'll let these things wait too. I know of at least one guy that would appreciate it.