Communication is the key to quality of life

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When I first met the slender, dark-haired nursing home resident I was the home’s 19-year-old dishwasher. The nursing home owner was showing me around. We stepped into a room where, to my right, the slender woman, in her mid-fifties, confined to an adult high chair, was eating food from a tray. She and I looked at each other while the owner said we were in a part of the home for residents, like this woman, who can neither speak, nor write.

The woman’s eyes, however, said to me: “Help.” I asked the owner if there was a way for the lady to communicate with people. He said, “No.”

That was my first encounter, not my last, with someone who has lost their ability to communicate through speaking or writing. The others involved family and friends.

My mother, Claire Fish, was a marvelous communicator, a letter writer who kept in touch with family and friends. Later in his life, mom’s father, William Commo, developed shaky hands, and was unable to write legible script. It seemed he would have to give up his much loved personal correspondence.

My mom, I think, came up with an idea to buy her father a portable manual typewriter. William Commo didn’t know how to type. But his desire to communicate was such that he learned to type using the two finger hunt-and-peck style. He was back in the letter writing business.

The last 30 years my parents lived in Pennsylvania, I lived in Maine. We stayed in touch mostly by telephone, sometimes through letter writing. When fax machines became affordable and popular, we communicated with them. Write a letter and fax it. No muss. No fuss. Much more convenient than mailing letters. Plus, the response could be – sometimes was – equally convenient and fast.

Computers and the internet arrived. My mother learned — enjoyed learning — to communicate with her computer. Video conferencing arrived. I can still see my mother’s shocked face when I first talked to her from Maine, via her computer screen in Pennsylvania. “Is that really you?” she asked several times.. “Yeah, Ma. It’s really me.”

By then, mom’s physical health was getting worse. Soon, she and my father moved to an assisted living facility. Mom’s computer went with her. It was business as usual: exchanging email, touching base by video conference. But mom’s health declined, and she too lost her ability to write, then to type, and finally, to speak.

In the last year of her life, with the help of a nurse’s aide, Janel, my mom and I could still see each other — although I was, by default, now holding up both ends of the conversation. With each function loss I worked to find a workaround so mom and I could stay connected. For a while I was successful, and very thankful for the assisted living administrators and staff willing to experiment. Keeping their residents in touch with family members and the world was a priority.

Mom died this year in February. Thinking of the work we two did to keep open the lines of communications, and remembering my first encounter at age 19 with the woman who seemed to have no one advocating for her, I wonder, How are communications for the elderly today? Are spouses, family members, friends, and elderly care workers thinking to keep open lines of communication?

I wonder, with the growing technological means to stay in touch with each other — should we be making individual plans, the same as we now do with home fire drill escape routes — for what to do if we can no longer speak or write?

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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