Friday, April 12, 2013


These days I am reflecting a lot on the differences between what I knew then, and what I know now, what I did then and what I do now. This week it will be 36 years since I got my first real professional job—a position at the CNIB, providing services to people with very low vision, mostly seniors. I was 23 years old, looking forward to a lifetime of infinite possibility. The seniors I met were inspired by me, and that was good, but they also pitied me—many of them in unguarded tearful sympathy. “You are so young,” they would cry in tremendous distress. “It is so sad.” I was immediately defensive. I did not want their pity or their tears. I wanted to give them accessible alarm clocks and library books on tape. I wanted to offer them white canes to ease their travel and magnifiers to aid their cooking. In short, I wanted them to stop grieving their losses and get on with the business of planning productive futures for themselves. Though many of them welcomed me and the great services I came to deliver, emotionally, it was difficult for me to reach them with anything more personal than professional detachment. Except for shared humour, an asset that worked wonders for me even at that early stage in my development, I wanted to set a boundary that said, “I am not you. Don’t pity me. I am young. I am doing fine. I am planning a great future. Leave me out of your sadness.” Years passed and I moved on to other employers, other educations, other life stages. Now, 36 years later, I am seeing people of that same population, seniors with low and deteriorating vision. Things are the same, and also different. The CNIB still delivers accessible alarm clocks, audio library books, white canes and magnifiers. More people are being served, and the population is older, largely because people are, in general older and healthier than they used to be. I am now a Registered Psychologist who has been hired because of my long experience in counselling for depression with people in all sorts of difficult situations. Others deliver the clocks and canes and such to my clients. My job is to deliver the emotional well-being that will inspire people to be the best that they can be. Something else is different too—and that is my point of view. A man has come to my office. He’s a young man by my current standards, only 77 years old. He’s had audio books for quite a while now. He was twice prescribed antidepressants—something that would never have happened to such an ordinary man 36 years ago. He stopped taking them both times. “They didn’t help,” he said. I start asking him about other medications he is taking—something I would never have done 36 years ago. He tells me about some, giving me the reasons why he got them. To show that I understand how he feels, I tell him I am almost 60 now, coping with ailments one at a time, quite often looking back with longing to the days when I could simply jump out of bed first thing in the morning without first causing to call a meeting of my body parts to ask who wants to move first. He starts to laugh. He tells me how frustrated he is with his television. He can’t operate it. He can’t see the menu on the screen. When I say that I too am furious that we can no longer get a television that a blind person can use, he perks up and tells me he wants to smash it. I get this. He has learned, as I have learned, that one wrong move on the remote will disable the TV and you won’t be able to use it until a sighted person comes along. He has learned how easy it is to make that one wrong move. We are different in TV watching, I not having much time for it. But I am well aware that in only a moment I also will be 77 years old, no longer employed, a woman with plenty of time to watch a TV I may not be able to use because I can’t access the information about channel and volume changes. Together we talk about the kind of message we need to deliver to TV manufacturers. We envision TV-throwing events where we will go together. He is laughing again. I am noticing that seniors don’t pity me any more. They see that I am almost 60 and have somehow wended my way through life’s challenges. Instead of talking about the magnifiers they need, we talk first about the times in their lives when they were faced with unwelcome changes. We talk about what they did in those instances. We wonder if they have changed much since then, if they still intend to be resilient, to be forward-looking, to take what comes to them and move on. They will hear and internalize this kind of talk from me because they can see me counting the years of my own future. Now that we are standing on the same ground, it’s hope talk pure and simple. “This is the kind of person you proved yourself to be. In the face of this unwelcome change, what kind of person do you hope to be?”

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