17 February

Dignity: A Talk With Jane. A Pinwheel Is Heading For Ohio

by Jon Katz
Barbara And Her Pinwheel

Last week, at the Mansion Valentine’s Day Party, Barbara, a resident there, waved me over and asked me to take a photograph of her as she happily blew on a pinwheel that had been sent to her and each of the other residents.

The pinwheels, I could see, were a favorite of the many gifts sent to the residents. Barbara loved the colors as the spun, it made her smile. And she loved going through the bag to see what she was sent.

Barbara is a lot of fun, she is lively, direct and has a great sense of humor and life. I love the story she tells about her trip to Alaska, and the blue ice she saw. She is outspoken and honest.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail in the morning, it was just signed Jane T—-.

“I sincerely hope that someone posts a photo of you in your dotage blowing, or attempting to blow, on a pinwheel, and writes “John is happy with his new toy,” said the e-mail. That was all.

At first, I thought it was a joke. The Valentine’s Day party was a sensation, in part because of the inventive, colorful and much loved gifts readers of the blog sent, more than 1,000 letters and a gift bags, cookies, cards, letters, chocolates and flowers. People loved the pinwheels, they were spinning all over the place.

I joked back that I was nearly in my dotage as well, and that I loved pinwheels, I have three I put out on the lawn each Spring, and nothing makes me happier than to blow on them or see them blowing in the wind.

It wasn’t until I re-read the letter that I realized it was angry, and not a joke.

I am good at reading the tenor of e-mails, but never quite imagined that an event so warm and affirming as the party could be controversial. (Nor did I imagine that some people would be angered that I suggested giving inexpensive gifts to refugee children who are here legally and in great need.)

I’ve been writing online for more than 30 years, the internet was created in part by teenage boys and they have left their testosterone  mark, and long ago I started what I call the Civility Project.

When I get a hostile message I sometimes respond quickly and courteously, challenging the writer to communicate in a courteous way and to try to see me as a human being with emotions and feelings, I suggest that they talk to me, rather than to an issue and succumb to the easy and nasty undertone of so much  e-mail.

These angry messages do  not require much thought, or perspective, there is no consequence or accountability for the harm they do.

Some people, I have learned, are just jerks, and there is no point in wasting my time. Most are just like me, except they just don’t seem to realize that they are writing to a person, not a bot. I can’t imagine sending angry messages to strangers.

Every time I make a human connection, I see it as a victory for humanity community. A good number of the people I’ve communicated with this way have become the most loyal readers of my blog and books. They are actually quite nice.

Sometimes this experiment yields wonderful conversations and replies.

I’ve learned that most cruel or angry messengers don’t think of the target as a human being, they can’t imagine I might listen.  They are used to being ignored – by politicians, corporations.

When they are reminded of their hostility, they often apologize or respond more thoughtfully.

Sometimes they go away, abashed.

If they send another angry or cruel message in reply, I move on. This program has taught me a lot about humanity and digital communications. It has also taught me to never give up on trying to be human.

I wrote Jane back. First off, I said, Barbara asked to have her picture taken. The pinwheels made her feel good.

Secondly, I have never seen anyone at the Mansion treat any of the residents as anything but dignified adults, they are never condescended to or infanticized or patronized in any way.  It is one of the reasons I love working there with Red.

Nor would I ever do that myself, and there is no reason to. These are not children in any sense of the word. The people I know at the Mansion are articulate, engaged and quite adult.

I told Barbara this, and I told her my wish for her is that she didn’t communicate with people in cruel a way. If something was bothering her, she should talk about it in an open and courteous way. I said I love pinwheels,and would be happy to get some in the mail at any point in my life. The photograph (above) was much-loved and shared.

I had a good feeling about Jane, a sense she was listening. Over the years, I’ve developed a feel for it, and then, I hang in there.

The next morning, I got another message from her. She apologized for the first message and explained:

“Sorry,  am 80. My spouse, who recently died, was in a nursing home where he was infanticized and the person who he really was, was disregarded.”

I read and  re-read the letter and Jane told me more.

The nursing home, quite different from the Mansion, treated her husband as a child, and he felt a great loss of dignity and self. It was difficult for her to watch, no one paid any attention to his feelings and wishes.

And no one listened to her pleas to treat him differently, to preserve  his dignity. So she just assumed I wouldn’t listen either.

Her descriptions of his last months were painful to read, It is an awful thing to be disregarded at any age, especially when you are older, and society often disregards you.

She said she understood from my blog posts that people at the Mansion did not appear to be treated in that way, the image just brought up those angry and difficult memories of her husband’s final days. They were always given him toys when he said he didn’t want them.

The loss of dignity and self is, I suspect, commonplace among the advanced elderly. It would be easy to patronize them or talk down to them. I have never once seen that happen at the Manson and have never, to my knowledge, done it myself.

I love the way the Mansion staff talk so naturally to the residents and listen to them so patiently,  and know them so well.

It was in my hospice volunteer work that I learned to never speak down or lie to a patient. I always speak openly and naturally to them in hospice or assisted care or nursing homes, I never tell them everything will be fine, because it isn’t  always the truth, and it is a sin in my mind to lie to a person in institutional care or near death.

Mostly, I listen. It is not my place to tell people how they are or will be.

So Jane and I chatted back and forth, across these strange new geography that e-mail and messaging are, and we connected to one another as people. We talked easily to each other.

She is loyal and loving and in grief, she could not be with her husband at the end of his life or ensure his dignity, she had too many issues of her own to contend with. She felt she had failed him.

Jane sent me another message thanking me for encouraging the Valentine’s Day party, and she said she might consider blowing on a pinwheel herself, it did look  like fun.

Tomorrow, I am sending her one of mine, courtesy of the Online Civility Program. One candle lit.

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