“Just a quick note to say thank you for a great evening and for sharing your experience. It rang bells and stirred a desire to do something to build our community of support.”
An email this morning has got me on a roll. “To do something to build our community of support.” Yes! I’m seeing everywhere I go how sharing my story always seems to pull out a dozen others from those attics in caregiver’s minds, where they’ve been stashed gathering dust and maybe even guilt. But two extraordinary events this week in Calgary tell me it’s time for us all to pull together with what we know from being caregivers, and get cracking to make a better world.
The first setting is an indie bookstore, Owls Nest, in a strip mall and known by any Calgarian who loves books as one of the very best places to be. The crowd is mixed. My interview on CBC has pulled in all sorts of curious people. The place is packed, “more than twice as many people as we have ever seen at an event like this,” says Sarah the events mover and shaker for the store. Fortunately there’s enough wine. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough books. We’ll fix that of course. If not from the preferred Canadian source, then there is always Amazon.
But I digress. This is not about my reading. That just kicked off the discussion. A geriatrician passionately spoke about the most precious time of life, it’s very end. A spiritual time. A time of transformation for everyone lucky enough to be involved. A time to treat life tenderly and allow it to end the way it is meant to be. And support? The best comfort that medicine and love can offer. Her passion for the palliative approach to end of life care was palpable. Her hand was on her heart as she spoke. A pin dropping would have felt like an interruption.
Then several caregivers spoke in turn, an ethicist, many daughters of course. An old man struggled to his feet, turning to his listeners like a pro communicator, except that his voice trembled with emotion. His was the story of a beautiful death, his wife’s, and her choice to accept the help of a physician to end it at her chosen moment. Back and forth the pole positions went while the audience held its breath. Would this become a squirmy debate? It didn’t.
I offered my favourite image. A powerful eagle, soaring on two fully functioning wings having all the necessary flight feathers for strength and balance. One wing, that choice we are learning more about every day, called Medical Assistance in Dying. The other, that choice we need to develop. Palliative approaches for comfort care available to everyone who needs it regardless of where they live and why they are dying. Only three in ten Canadians have a hope of getting it now. That’s not right. Everyone nodded.
But this extraordinary discussion didn’t end in that agreement. “What about the people who do not have caregiver family?” someone asked, twisting her widow’s ring. Hard question. But out of the audience came the first threads of an answer. “We must relearn what we knew before, how to be community strong.”
Someone else recalled the crisis of the ice storm that knocked the infrastructural stuffing out the city of Ottawa for many days and was still remembered. Not for the crisis, but the opportunity. Only when the lights went off did neighbours start to know each other, share food and warmth, make friendships that lasted long after the heat came on again. That terrible time was the rediscovery of the long lost play book of really being in community.
To me the best bit of all came as dusk settled outside the Owls Nest. The speaker was a thirties-something woman, striking in her youthful beauty and smiling as she looked around at all of us, speaking loudly so overcome the whistles of our hearing aids. “Thank you!” she said. All eyebrows raised.
She explained what she meant. We were the first folks of a certain age she’d ever met who weren’t trembling in fear of the future or fist shaking at the failures of systems that weren’t helping them enough. We were embracing the idea of remaking community, “like the old days”. She was sure too that being there for each other would help us all navigate the the way ahead on that uncertain demographic journey, and clear away rocks in the road. “Thank you for what you are teaching me.”
It was a different crowd the next day, at the old sandstone building in South West Calgary that used to be a boarded up school. I arrived with my box of books and young guys in hard hats all raced to hold the door. Scaffolds were everywhere. This is C-Space, It came close to being demolished to make way for condos. Some visionary won the day to refit it into an incubator for a cultural shift. This is where the Calgary Association for Life Long Learning was setting up chairs for my talk about The Dwindling. I’m right on the money of CALL’s philosophy. Members have valuable knowledge gained from life experience and a diversity of talent to be shared, it’s website declares. I did my reading. We talked. Then I moved to the hall for more conversation and to sign some books.
It was noisy out there. Drums were throbbing and what sounded like a native honour song was being belted out at full voice just down the hall. Presently a kind faced native boy with glistening black hair down his back came to apologize for the ruckus. “Are we too loud?” he wondered. He explained that his group was preparing a theatre piece, rebooting the proud story of Treaty 7 First Nations. for a new generation. He was excited by it all, said he felt a new and inclusive era dawning with so many people ready at last to understand.
“Noisy? Not at all,” I said, handing him a copy of my book to read on the tour bus. “We are rebooting too…” I explained about the conversation we had just had, as one story led to many and we all realized our common cause. I told him we also had a problem with perception. “We’re called the greys in the What’s Ap world and hey, that tag makes us see ourselves as feeble too!” I reached for a pen to sign his copy. “That isn’t right!”
My elderly peers pitched in, realizing we were confirming our idea by explaining it to this fellow. We told him that we were seeing the beginning of our solution to the caregiving crisis up ahead, and thinking how to take it into our own hands. We might not have wizard tech skills or fingers still flying over our smart phones, but we know what a good community of care looks like.
“Pass the book around when you’re done,” I said, “I think we’re all on to the same idea.”
He looked at us, a gaggle of wrinkled women grinning at him, and there was just that hint of wrinkled brow to tell me he had a question. “What’s that idea?”
I smiled, passing back his signed copy. “It’s simple,” I said, “We are the solution we yearn for.”
it's about the journey
Caregiving was my first and finest journey. Writing this book about it was the next. It lends support to other caregivers who say, "that happened to me too." I'm on another journey now, advocating for caregiving and an activist to bring on better ways of thriving as we age. It's all brought me purpose and meaning, Come along and get some of that too! I'd love to share your stories. Boldly speaking out about our experiences makes us all part of the change we want to see. So
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