I can’t hear you

I had lunch with Judy on Wednesday. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve had time to have a leisurely lunch with someone. I’m beginning to feel a bit of freedom in my days, none too soon. Judy is an architect who, like I did, earned her living in the same business as I, doing project work on office and other commercial buildings. I learned a lot from Judy as we worked together and appreciated her wry sense of humour.

I’m happy with her companionship, especially now, because she is a compassionate being and understands what I’ve been through lately. She retired early from our workplace a few years ago to care for her two aging parents and saw them through very difficult times to the end. I didn’t understand then and am sorry I didn’t give her more support at the time.

She became housebound, practically, because she could rarely leave her parents alone. Her father fell a number of times and she was dealing with hospitals, care givers, ambulances, et cetera, et cetera, all on her own. When I phoned, I could hear her despair, sometimes, but there was not much more that I could do than phone, given that I was working and looking after my own mother. It was all consuming and that left precious little time to do much of anything. I used to think about phoning at about eleven o’clock at night when I finally had mom to bed, and I was starting to see what still needed to be done before I too could take a horizontal position and rest from my labours.

Judy has had time to think where she is going since the death of both of her parents. She’s still a young woman and she has the opportunity to reinvent herself as she wishes. Her compassion for the elderly and her vision as to what could be, in geriatric care, has led her to combine her architectural knowledge and her design ability with an understanding of the needs of aging people and people with disabilities.

As we leaned forward to talk over our plates of simple fare – mine a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with salad, and hers, a chicken salad – I mentioned that Mom had three other table companions, one who was an architect, but, like her, had not spent his career designing houses or buildings. He was engaged in the building trade, alright, but in the service of a development company and he had made plenty of money doing so.

When I met him, I called him Peter Gruff, since he was so curmudgeonly. It was hard to talk to him because he could give you simply scathing looks when he chose to do so, and he often just waved people away when he couldn’t understand them. I had no idea that he was an architect for several months. I had to winkle his story out of him. I broke the ice with a drawing.

I was sitting at the table of four with one of the residents away for a hospital visit, a check-up. As I did not want dinner, I sat with a cup of coffee and sketched Mother across the table from me, and then a cartoon of someone else. Mr. Gruff beckoned with his aged, crippled hand for me to show it to him. His face wreathed in the first smile I had ever seen him make. It was simply beatific! His rheumy eyes were alight with happiness. He nodded his head in approval and with the knuckle of his right hand, indicated to his chest that he too did drawings. His voice over this gesture was hard to understand. It was muffled and difficult. It was obvious that he had speech problems as well as paraplegia, and hearing loss. Of course, I was a little pleased that he liked my drawing, and pleased that I had finally cracked a smile from Mr. Gruff. Eventually, if I paid great care and attention to what he was trying to say, I could grasp the stories he told me about his past. I’d made a connection!

Over the months that followed, I found out that he had served in the Second World War and had met his wife, a nurse, around the time of the liberations of Holland. He had married her during the war and as a “gift” from his commanding unit, had been given the use of a jeep to go from Holland to Paris on leave with his new bride for a period of two weeks. The smiles that came with this news were wonderful. He was happy to recount part of his life. He was delighted to have someone listen and understand that he was someone and that he had had a wonderful life.

He invited me to see his drawings and his paintings in his room. His monk’s cell was a clutter of papers and books. His walls were covered with his favorite paintings, not only his, but ones he had acquired in his various journeys to Hawaii and Cuba. He may have gone other places, but these were his obvious loves. He went many times and had a few photos of his companions, including his very lovely looking wife.

I rather lusted after a few of the paintings. I am very difficult when it comes to art work. I have very specific tastes and high standards that I apply to acquiring art. These watercolours were loose and sure handed; the colours were rich and varied; the subjects were groups of people having fun, and that is not so easy to compose. We considered each other peers in the matter of our art talent, although from time to time he would critique my work as if he were the professor and I the student.

I wanted one of his works, but I was very conscious that I should not ask for things from these recent friends of mine. Seniors are vulnerable and can easily be talked into giving away things that really should stay on their family. I felt it would be unethical to ask.

Peter was having a hard time trying to paint watercolours because his hands would not hold the brush and the activity of dipping the brush, mixing the colour and applying it to paper was far more than his partial paralysis would allow. I thought he might like to have some watercolour crayons. These are like wax crayons with a simple paper covering on them. They can be used in the same manner as wax crayons but then one can take a brush with water on it and spread the colour around.

I went down to Opus Frame and Art Supplies and carefully picked out a palette of colours that would suit the kind of thing I had seen of his work and realized he would need a range of landscape colours. These came in a set. He also needed some flesh colour crayons for skin tones in sunshine and skin tones in shade; these I bought as extras for his kit. I bought a block of watercolour paper as well.

When I gave them to him at the table at the next opportunity you would think he had seen heaven, so bright was his face, smiling ear to ear. He looked at them lovingly and twisted them carefully in his hands, felt the surface of the water colour paper and then could not wipe the grin off his happy face.

Our conversation then took a turn to other things, and I mentioned to Judy that one of the worst things for people being put into residences, as their last “home”, was that, at such an age, they had to make friends again, having lost many of the abilities that could facilitate that process.

For instance, my mother was a bit shy anyway. She didn’t have a lot of social self confidence although she had so much to offer and people who knew her loved her. In addition to the shyness, she was handicapped by her short term memory – she simply could not remember the next day who she had been talking to. Again, she could hardly see, so it was doubly hard to remember; and then, she could not hear, so she could hardly catch names and reuse them to aid her memory.

Everyone in the home more or less lost their identity as they entered residential care. No one knew who the new residents were; no one knew their friends; no one could situate them in a social context; no one knew their accomplishments and no one knew their likes and dislikes. These people grew up in an era when it was impolite to brag about oneself. Even talking about one’s self was considered poor form. Imagine having to shout you personal details to someone partially deaf. The newcomer simply wouldn’t think if it! No wonder getting to know others was an uphill challenge!

My conversation with Judy shifted into a conversation of how deafness handicapped a person’s acceptance.

Judy recounted how her mother, not understanding what Judy had said, would bawl her out for something Judy had said; by the time the conversation had been understood, her mother would think that she had brought Judy around to her view point. It was discouraging, frustrating and sometimes downright funny.

It puzzled me that my architect friend Peter could hear table conversations and participate sometimes despite his deafness. Then it occurred to me that he had the same problem as we had noticed with Mother.

Both I and my brother visited her every day. We tried to attend to some of the things that we realized were not being looked after by the residential care givers. We cut her nails, I tweaked out long hairs that sometimes grew in her eyebrows. I put ointment on minor rashes and rubbed body lotion onto her drying skin. Otto was good at changing her hearing aid batteries. Occasionally though, I would find Mom being almost stupid in her responses to me until I twigged to the fact that her hearing aid batteries had quit in between our visits, and she needed new ones put in.

The first challenge was the packaging. She couldn’t pop the new batteries out of their bubble wrap by herself, nor take off the little protective tab it came with. Then, when she tried, she most often dropped the battery and then could not find it again. Finally, with her arthritic fingers she could no longer hold the tiny batteries nor find the little door in the hearing aid that popped open to receive them. The batteries were fabricated so that they would not go in if they were not right side up. This too required good eye sight and good fine motor control . Hearing aid management was a senior citizen’s nightmare.

So I would find myself repeating the same word two or three times in a conversation that went like this:

“Today’s newspaper” I might say.

“Whiskers?” she would reply.

“Today’s newspaper” I would repeat, trying to enunciate better, saying it slower, speaking a bit louder.

“To buy some caper? she would reply looking more puzzled

Patience flagging, I would fish out a newspaper if there was one around and point at it.
“Newpaper. Newspaper” I would repeat.

“Newspaper?” she would reply and I would nod.

“Today’s” I would continue. She would think about it “Today’s?” she’d say, and continue on, “Well, what about it?”

But by then I’d realize and say, tapping my ear and beckoning her to give her hearing aid to me, “I won’t talk to you until you show me your hearing aids. I bet your battery is out.”

She’d pout. She didn’t like taking them in and out. Sure enough, either no battery or dead battery. I’d replace and then we’d talk as if she never had a hearing problem.

So I asked Peter if anyone replaced the batteries for him and he shook his head, looking quite resigned.

It seemed such a pity, to me. Here were so many people with a common problem and it took so little to help them overcome the difficulty – just change a battery – at most a thirty second task. It should have been a number one priority so that the care givers could understand their patients and vice versa. How much frustration was created for both care givers and patient. And it could so easily be fixed!

It was time for Judy and I to go. We picked up our coats and paid the bill. As we were leaving, I swung back to an earlier part of the conversation.

“The only thing I regret,” I told her ” was that Peter died three days after I gave the water colour materials to him. I don’t think he ever got to use them.”

“Well, think of it this way,” she replied. “I bet he died happy.”


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