Embracing the Human Connection

I am a student in the School of Public Health here at U of M, studying the health services system. We hear over and over of how the current system is at risk of not being able to effectively serve the growing population of elderly adults in our country. To me, this seems like it should be at the top of most health systems’ agendas, since as every year passes millions of adults enter Medicare eligibility. With this growing population, health systems need to find ways to provide care that is not only effective, but is patient-centered and compassionate.

I have had the pleasure of working with one of the Wisdom Keepers community members for the past few months. He is a stroke survivor, former pilot,engineer,model airplane enthusiast and an artist. At first, I was nervous that we wouldn’t have anything in common or that he wouldn’t enjoy our art sessions. We began by painting with watercolor which he seemed to take only a slight interest in. We would paint for awhile and then he would want to read books about cars or planes. Luckily I have a father who is a pilot so I was able to immediately connect with him about planes and his prior travels. One day when we were painting I saw that he was concentrating very hard on his work. He was using his watercolor brush to draw a bi-plane, a specific kind of airplane which can do tricks and fly upside down. I quickly handed him a pencil and told him he would be able to get much more detail that way. Sure enough, he breezed through six drawings of planes, cars and even boats. As he was drawing, he was telling me about every part of each vehicle and why that part is necessary. I learned all about his favorite models of cars, the trips he took with his wife in his bright red convertible, the single-engine plane with an orange stripe that he used to own and his favorite airports to land at. It was clear that he was in his element: his engineering background combining with his hobby of flying and his obvious artistic talent. Every week we spent some time drawing, looking at maps and reminiscing about cars and the fun times he had with friends in those cars. This was no longer a college class for me: it was an opportunity to develop a friendship and have a mutually-stimulating weekly meeting, something that was much-needed in my busy schedule.

This experience opened my eyes to the importance of providing the right care for an aging population. Memory loss is extremely common in the elderly and should not be thought of as a hindrance to daily life. If the health services system can find a way to support those patients who have cognitive decline while enhancing their daily life, I see a future where providing care for the chronically ill and elderly population isn’t a burden to an already-overworked system. What my friend needed was a human connection and an outlet for his creative talents, not necessarily to produce award-winning artwork but to allow him the gift of expression, something he may have forgotten how to do after his stroke. What he did not need was to sit in a waiting room, and then sit in a hospital bed while being prodded and studied. Cognitive decline is an opportunity for patients and caregivers to look at life from a fresh perspective, not try to revert back to how life “used to be”. This course opened my eyes to this truth and I plan on using this experience to bring more expression into the current health services system.

~ Chrissy, School of Public Health Graduate Student, U of M

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