Prior to working in the long term care industry, most of my career was spent working in hospitals in a role that was far more corporate than clinical. Acute care is a very different environment than working with older adults. Folks are in and out of the hospital quickly (even more quickly now than when I worked in that environment) and the interaction with their families is really quite limited.
In the older adult services world, it is a very different scenario. Many of our residents, in every setting from independent living through nursing home, spend years with us. We get to know them and it is one of the joys that draws many of us to this work. We build relationships, we hear stories and share a part of their lives in ways that are unique and meaningful.
We also get to know their families. We often have conversations with families that range from getting better acquainted to learning more about their loved one. We hear concerns as well as praise and we often are there to support—and comfort—along the journey.
So my understanding of families and their dynamics has grown from the context of just my own, not uncomplicated, family. And I realize with even more clarity that every family has its own character, its own personality and dynamics. We see the siblings who do not speak to one another or who argue about what is right and what is wrong for their parent. We see the parents who are estranged from their children and grieve for that loss, for the hole it leaves in their lives. And we see families that come together, not through biology, but through friendship, compassion and commitment.
What have I learned from all of this? That family does matter, whether it is the family you were born into or the family you choose. Life is more difficult without others who care, who support you, who share both good times and bad. I have said to feuding siblings “Can’t you just put this aside for the good of your parent?” I have said to parents “Would you like to reach out to your children? Would you like us to try and help you rebuild the bridge?”
Too often the answer is “no.” It’s a “no” grounded in lots of different things — fear of rejection, memories of past hurts, unwillingness to bend and all the rest. It takes someone to reach farther across the divide to bring all the hands together in the middle and sometimes, more often than not in these situations, it doesn’t happen.
Life, as we all know, is short and it is fragile. It can and does change in the space between one heartbeat and the next. And the value that family can bring to one another, in times of need as well as in times of joy, is enormous. Not every family can find their way back to one another but for those that can, well, I think the effort is not only worthwhile and meaningful but also healing — for everyone.