Mal Cognitive Peary Street

This is the third of four posts using stories from Peary Street to explain the first of twelve ways that storytelling defines creativity in the way we talk to each other, a process that I call symmentropy.

First rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling promotes understanding and meaning

“Mother is fine. She has a little malcognitive impairment.”

Six of my mother's seven children had the same reaction to receiving this email, “What's the story?” This is not a story. It passes as a story in a family led by a man who never mentioned his dead brother. The difference between my father and my sister points to the difference between no information and bad information. As much as storytelling functions to inform and create harmony in a group, it also runs amok to create information fiefdoms that result in everything from minor misunderstandings to violence when vague or incomplete stories cannot make events meaningful.

We identify generations by their common experiences, the stories that are told by a large portion of the people who lived through a certain time. The “baby boomers” are living through caring for the end of the “greatest generation”. The shift in attitude that is required to move from “child of” to “care taker of” challenges us to tell stories that allow us to help our parents in ways that they would want or maybe in ways that they helped us. When assistance is offered in families with consistent stories, a smooth transition from independence to mutual care giving results, but a family that suffers from a vacuum of stories struggles to create a story that allows a family meaning at the end of life.

My father's death left my mother to handle normal bill paying, shopping, home maintenance and everything else that she had shared with my father, and in many cases, left entirely to him. For a woman in her 80's, this task brought all of her children together to discuss how to help her make the adjustment. At that point, we were not ready to intervene with her independence but were all aware that my mother needed help in making an adjustment to living alone for the first time in her life. From our first discussion, we struggled to find a guiding principle that could unify the group in their efforts. We could not identify a narrative for how a family responds to a parent's failing health.

My mother was a proud and private person who could not imagine asking for help or even allowing the appearance that she might even need anything from anyone. The morning after my grandmother was killed in a car accident and my father immediately left to be with his father, my mother packed all five of us into the car so that we could join him in Pennsylvania. On our way out of town, we stopped at a grocery store. As we walked across the parking lot, we ran into a family friend who greeted my mother and chatted with her briefly and cheerfully. I told my mother that I was surprised she did not say anything about our pending journey or the shocking death of my grandmother. She told me it just was “not polite to be honest.” and that some things were only shared with certain people. I was pretty sure that I did not agree with her and filed away the information that honesty and civility were not good neighbors, but I always respected her consistent application of putting the best possible face on every situation. I also never forgot that when she talked to me, her words might be more polite than honest. As her health declined, we had to make the choice between believing that her “I do not need help” was honest or polite.

This is the challenge that my brothers and sisters faced in trying to help our mother. She would never admit needing our help and in fact, would hide the truth from us because it was what she had always done. Some clung to maintaining her values without narrative while others tried to introduce a story line of open discussion of the issues she confronted. At the same time, common sense demanded that someone look over her shoulder to make sure that she was not endangering the neighborhood. I envy small families for their few voices in the committee to take care of the parents as the seven voices in this committee, particularly armed with the carefully controlled, glossy stories, never discussed my mother's line between polite and honest. The enormous difficulty that we had in finding common ground demanded that we could not wait for group consensus, so individuals assigned themselves tasks with very different levels of explaining their actions. My siblings followed my mother's hurtful teaching that polite over rules honest in an effort avoid confrontation and guaranteed that the coming confrontations would be painful and neither polite nor honest.

While the efforts of each of us were guided with our mother's best interests at heart, the fragmented approach inevitably produced overlaps and conflicts. One story motivated our understanding of the situation. That story was the proud and independent woman who would rather put her best face forward than have anyone able to see the difficulty that she was having. That story had meaning to us as we had seen it many times and it kept us from insisting that she get some help managing a five bedroom house alone. We had all experienced her stubborn refusal to consider options other than the course she had chosen and usually that experience left our egos bruised if not scarred. Seven reasonable adults intimidated by the difficult task of choosing the time to look at her and tell her that she just could not do everything by herself and that we were going to help her no matter how much she complained.

In storytelling terms, we were searching for the meaning in her stubborn streak to find a place that we could intervene without hurting her pride. The problem was that her example of keeping difficulties behind closeted doors left us working as individuals instead of as a family. We fought to find a sense of common purpose or meaning to our actions when we tried to do things the way she would have them done. Our chances of success would have increased if we had more stories of her experiences and the source of the values that she cherished. With no real guidance, we doomed ourselves to several years of back channeled family squabbling. The next post will finish the story of mal cognitive impairment and the first principle of storytelling.

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