During my summer between high school and university, I worked at a job providing home care for clients, usually seniors, who needed support to stay in their homes. I provided some light housekeeping, meal preparation, companionship and some personal care. I learned a lot at that job, mostly because I had no training as a personal support worker. But some of the lessons went far beyond how to do the job. I learned a lot about how to do life.
I had a number of clients with varying health needs. Two were women in their senior years, who had both had strokes which left them with limited use of their limbs on one side of their bodies. They were each confined to a bed or a chair. But the similarities ended there.
The first client was an irritable, unhappy person. She was often alone in her big home while her husband was at work. She complained all the time, and nothing I could do was quite good enough. She gave strict instructions on how to mop the hardwood floor, with warnings of serious consequences if I used the wrong product and damaged anything.
The second client exuded peace and even joy. She loved to share a giggle with her husband, and together they found lots to giggle about, including all their favourite TV shows. Although limited to her bed or the living room chair in their small, one-bedroom apartment, her life was seemed so rich with interests, faith, meaning and love. Her impaired speech meant she had to communicate through gestures as she showed me her morning personal care routine. One day, I mixed up the times and came an hour late but at the end of my visit, they completed my time sheet as if I had arrived on time, responding with grace in the face of my obvious shame.
Two people who experienced the same life-threatening and life-altering medical event, left with similar levels of impairment. Two people living out their daily lives so differently.
I knew back then that this was important to pay attention to. That life is more than what happens to us, but about what we do with what happens to us. It made me recognize that I have choices about how I handle life, and those choices can either leave me sad and bitter, or peaceful and joyful as I age.
Looking back now, I can have a lot more understanding and compassion for the first lady. I’m sure there is more to her story than I was aware of at the time. I’m more understanding of what the impact of being alone so many hours a day would likely have had on her, with only the occasional hired companionship of a home care worker.
I also know more now about how much the presence of the second woman’s husband likely played a role in her ability to be resilient in the face of her stroke and resulting disabilities. I’ve learned about the importance of having a safe emotional connection with a loving partner, family member, or close friend, and how protective such relationships can be in the face of shared disasters. Dr. Sue Johnson’s research on the importance of healthy attachment relationships for adults demonstrates how such relationships can change our experiences of distressing and painful situations.
This recognition makes it even more important for me to protect and strengthen my key relationships with my spouse, my family and my friends. I know not only what kind of person I want to be as I get older, but also the kinds of attachment relationships I want to have and maintain going forward.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network