The End Game

by Rick on July 11, 2021

Fifteen years ago, I had a late-in-life experience that helped me see that the tricks of bringing out the genius in children apply at any age:

Written June 9, 2006:
At the age of 75, my step-mother still makes the same mistakes with my 86-year-old father, that she did with her children. When my father with confusion on his face says something like, “I don’t understand what’s going on,” she gets angry, and in a loud voice says, “I just told you what’s going on: I am going downtown to do errands, and I will be back after lunch.” It must be as challenging to be responsible for a person whose brain is deteriorating as it is to be responsible for a brain that is growing. Not only do you not know what he knows, what he remembers, what he understands, but you don’t know how that knowledge and understanding is changing.

My father tells me in his characteristically calm, thoughtful way that he just can’t remember things anymore, but that his wife keeps hoping he will get his memory back. “I don’t think so,” he says. In the course of the last three years I have watched him go from forgetting what he was about to say to not remembering his grandchildren’s names or that the seven of hearts is bigger than the six of hearts. His self-reporting conforms to what I observe.

Yet his wife says, It’s not that he can’t remember; he won’t remember,” and to prove her point, says: “Dana, count to ten,” a challenge which Dana’s brain is either too far gone to do, or which Dana is too smart to take her up on. They disagree about what is going on in that black box: my father’s brain.

The great challenge of working with people at the end of their life, or the beginning, or anywhere in between for that matter, is that we can’t know what is going on in the black box. Now that my father is back back from the hospital and home with his wife and full-time live-in help, this difference of opinion will continue to be a source of stress and suffering until his wife lets him die.

Children in the classroom or at home can be equally frustrating. It happens from time to time that a teacher will notice a student sitting at the table with the paper in front of him staring off into space. The other kids are working away. Normally, the teacher will go over and ask if he needs help, and half the time he just snaps out of his reverie and starts writing. The other half of the time, he says he doesn’t understand, the teacher explains, and the student applies pencil to paper. But sometimes the student can’t seem to do anything unless the teacher sits right with him and does it for him. Sometimes this means the child simply doesn’t yet have the neurological connections necessary to do the problem; sometimes it means the child has become too dependent on the adults and has learned to be dependent. Sometimes he or she is playing out a deeper psycho-drama and including the teacher in the game. Often it is a combination. The problem is that we don’t know.

There are various methods that one can employ. There’s getting mad and raising your voice, known as the “bad method” of changing behavior. There is trying harder, known as the “almost-as-bad method” of changing behavior. Then there are some methods which actually work. Actually, they are not so much methods as disciplines, rules to follow in the dynamic, ever-changing relationship.

1) Assume good will. Since you don’t know whether the other person is being difficult or just is difficult, act as if they are doing their best rather than as if they are simply trying to make your life more difficult.

2) Get the other person to talk about their experience and say back to them what you think they said and say “Is that right?” and/or “Is there anything else?” Once they know that what’s in their black box is now in yours, you’re in business. Now you can have the civil, mutually enlightening conversation you want.

If my step mother had applied methods like these, their relationship might have been better during the last two years after he got out of the hospital. It wouldn’t have changed his behavior much, of course. His brain was not developing, it was undeveloping, but at least their last two years together might have been happier.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher Senger July 28, 2021 at 5:17 pm

Hi Rick,

It is difficult to watch a person you love struggle with memory loss. Trying to stay in the moment and not fix things was definitely a learning experience. Meeting people where they are and acknowledging their struggle is imperative. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Lisa August 3, 2021 at 6:29 am

Hi Rick–I appreciate this stance of knowing we don’t really know. We try to collect as much data as we can, but still, what is happening inside is a great unknown, no matter how much experience and knowledge we have. In fact, many (most?) of us don’t even know what is going on inside of us as we interact with that child. Noticing and naming how we feel is always a good place to start.

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