By Tiw Rægening, Interaction Practitioner
Recently, I attended a funeral for one of the people we supported. This, unfortunately is not a rare occurrence, but it happens, and attending a funeral is virtually the last thing that we can, and wish to do for the person we have got to know. We can show our appreciation for having known him or her, and can also show solidarity with the home staff and family.
What often comes out of these emotional times of focus and reflection, especially so when family are present, is that there is something mentioned about the person who has passed away, which we had no knowledge of. This could be a favourite song, a favourite hobby, an ability that was lost. Occasionally we discover that someone the deceased often mentioned, was someone who we were visiting in another home. I could go on, but whatever it was, could have been in some appropriate and meaningful way, acknowledged during sessions, while they were alive. These little scraps of information may indeed have made little or no impact, but to be honest, we will never know.
One fantastic gentleman we visited, loved Michael Jackson songs, we knew it and we celebrated this interest on occasion. As these were group sessions, you would think that this might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but those interactions did appear to create a real sense of fun, which was able (on some level and with our support), to consolidate and unify the group. There was the chap who enjoyed the music, there was the lady who was engaged because we were using her vocalisations as lyrics, and then there was the other lady who found my interpretative dance clearly hilarious! This interaction would not have been explored, without this knowledge.
Our sessions are run with, and inspired by, those participating. It must be a joint and shared activity in order to be meaningful, not merely something arbitrary, or a meaningless experience that is foisted upon those present. True, the participants will often let us know, or give us responses that can indicate what is of interest to them. Even so, how glorious to share something that we know they actually like, or that could spark a strong response!
Each week we visit many homes and often engage with staff in conversation, about our group or individual, to find out more about the activities they have experienced since our last visit. There are other clues about their lives, such as photographs showing recent holidays, and possible family members. We can ask staff, who are often very knowledgeable about the people they support, but as the people we visit can be aged, the stories of their childhood and earlier life experiences are rarely available to them. So also are things such as the meaning or origin of phrases, or vocalisations that sound like words but are without context, all of this information may have become lost, with changes of staff and home.
The most joyous thing is the opportunity to tell them that we valued their relative also, to give family members the opportunity to see their loved one through our eyes and recognise them. We write annual reports for each service user and are happy for relatives to read these to share our work. We can (in person), relay the responses of their relative and have a moment to celebrate them together. Often when we do talk to family about the life of their son, daughter, brother, sister, we pick up on a sense of loss for the abilities that their relative used to have. Also their guilt at not being able to see them more regularly, or frustration on some level about not being able to connect or even get simple eye contact.
When we talk to relatives, there is often joy, mixed with a self-defensive outlook of realism, grim humour and years of suppressed hope; probably trying to balance our enthusiasm? It does follow that if we ask people to talk of the past, we will, in varying degrees, be taking them back to that time, along with the emotions that were there then. On one side it may not be as hard emotionally on us, the fact that we did not know our service users as their younger selves. Our present role is to celebrate the person here and now, and work at maintaining their present abilities of communication. As Interaction Practitioners, we are not focusing on perceived failings, but instead upon what participants are able to do.
It is of course, valuable to be aware of limitations, as we do not want to offer something that is beyond someone’s ability. But then again, we have found with flexibility, and a little imagination, most activities can be shared on an equal basis; to promote self-esteem and inclusion. So when we talk of our sessions to others, we are often unable to do this without giving a sense of our unconditional positive regard, enthusiasm, encouragement and a list of this person’s achievements; as well as a sense of privilege at having known them. We all hold our little piece of the jigsaw/ picture; so, confidentiality allowing, is it now time to place them on the table together, before the opportunity has passed?