Over to You

THIS IS AN ‘OPPORTUNITY’?

My mother’s fall taught me a lot—including how grating Jargon can be

BILL TEMPLEMAN February 28 2005
Over to You

THIS IS AN ‘OPPORTUNITY’?

My mother’s fall taught me a lot—including how grating Jargon can be

BILL TEMPLEMAN February 28 2005

THIS IS AN ‘OPPORTUNITY’?

Over to You

My mother’s fall taught me a lot—including how grating Jargon can be

BILL TEMPLEMAN

MY MOTHER, WHO IS 93, had been in our house for all of two hours when she headed upstairs for a nap. Moments later, my five-year-old daughter dashed into the kitchen shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, come quick! Grandma fell down stairs!” Fortunately, my wife, Trudi, had managed to catch my mom before she did a complete cartwheel. The damage was not as bad as it could have been, considering the odds: wounded pride and a minor, non-displaced fracture of the pelvis. No surgery, only bedrest.

After her hospital stay, my mother could have gone into a nursing home to recuperate

for her eventual trip home to Montreal. But Trudi and I were sure we could provide a more cheerful environment for her at our house. We converted our dining room into a convalescence ward and prepared ourselves for the full-time task of looking after a disabled senior. I emailed friends and colleagues to explain my expected absence from their lives. I received an array of kind replies, but one surprised me: “Harry filled me in on your situation with your mom. She is 93? Amazing. Hope you’re able to see the opportunity in all of this.”

Opportunity? I felt as if I had been kicked in the gut. I was enraged by her well-intentioned words. After a few seconds the anger passed—but why the strong reaction?

I work as a consultant in organizational change. I always encourage my clients to see the positive in any situation, no matter how difficult. I know the models and the theories. I use the jargon all the time. Never “problems,” always “opportunities.” Never “complaining,” always “seeing the upside.” Never “getting stuck,” always “moving on.” But now I was on the receiving end of all this blather. And it felt rotten.

When we empathize with someone during a stressful time, we are offering our support. Empathy sounds like: “I understand how you feel. It must be rough right now.” But when we encourage others to “see the positive side” of a difficult situation, we are coaching them. There have been times when I’ve appreciated coaching—difficult career decisions, coping with important life passages,

etc.—but after my mother fell down the stairs, and I made plans to take care of her at home, I didn’t want uninvited admonitions. I wanted support, encouragement, even practical advice. I didn’t want a coach.

Perhaps it comes down to this: we can offer support to someone under stress, but we should not offer coaching unless asked.

My mother’s planned four-day visit lasted almost four weeks before she was strong enough for the drive back to Montreal. Was I able to “see the opportunity in all of this?”

Yes, actually. A latecomer to fatherhood, I’ve only recently come to understand the unremitting hard work that comes with raising kids. In helping my mother to recuperate, I had a meagre chance to say, through actions more than words, “Thanks, now I know how tough it was.”

But this new understanding came at a cost. Some elderly people spiral downward after such an injury; I feared that my mother might start that final slide. For the first 10 days, we could not leave her alone. At first, she couldn’t stand or use a walker without assistance. Every day brought the same

chores: medications, meals, bathing, changing sheets, laundry and so on. All my free time vanished. Between childcare—we have a nine-year-old daughter as well as our fiveyear-old—and eldercare, I’d become an instant member of the sandwich generation. And there wasn’t enough of me to go around.

I had to acknowledge that all my lofty principles about taking care of my mother were shattered by my resentments. But what did I gain by hearing the angry, selfish voice inside me raging against the extra work, the grinding routine of good nursing care, the sheer relentlessness of it all?

At work these days I am no longer so quick to shower my clients with sunny encouragement and positive affirmations. I try to respect their need to acknowledge what they are feeling before dumping my agenda on them. I thought my job as a consultant was to help people adjust to that which they cannot control. Now I see that I must also be considerate of their need to handle as much on their own as they can.

Fortunately our patient was gracious throughout. My mother coped remarkably well with her loss of privacy and the ministrations of her middle-aged son and daughter-in-law. Now she’s back in her own home, going about her daily life as before, almost fully recovered, apart from occasionally using a walker for long distances.

Until this incident I had always seen my mother as a proudly independent woman. Suddenly, she was vulnerable, quite fragile. So this is what aging is really like. I can no longer dismiss the spectre of my own eventual decline. May I have the courage to endure it half as well.

“This opportunity” is far more complex than I assumed. Just don’t make the point for me. Fet me find out on my own. If I want your help, let me ask for it. M

Bill Templeman is a writer and consultant in Peterborough, Ont. To comment: overtoyou@macleans.ca