Thursday, August 23, 2007

The continuing quest for empathy

I have a tendency to draw connections between things, sometimes odd ones - a system thinker, if you will. At times these mental connections bring an unexpected flash of empathy for something completely outside my direct experience. Like SeaFair providing an opportunity to practice empathy for people who are bombed - not like that one takes a great mental leap, but you get my drift.

Toby is having a terrible summer for the allergic itchies; we had him at the vet for a spot between his toes that took nearly three weeks and a lot of antibiotics to heal. Now he's created a nasty spot on his face, the second-worse location after the feet because it is also a place that's hard to keep dry (around the jowels) AND it has the added bonus of being a spot that he can rip to shreds with his foot, and not just lick. So poor Toby has spent a lot of time this summer with a big plastic cone around his head, which he hates.

And we spend a lot of time protecting him from himself, which we hate. Stop that, Toby. Come here so I clean or spray or trim your wound, Toby. You can't go outside without your plastic cone, Toby. We try to give him a break from the cone but that means constant vigilance, leaping for the foot before it can reach the face.

Recently Enrico and I watched the movie Iris, the story of author Iris Murdock and in particular her death from Alzheimers. And then on Sunday there was this article in the paper, about the efforts of our rather progressive state to make disabled people get jobs. It was pitched as a civil rights issue, that people should have the ability to do jobs equal to their potential; lively brains should not waste away stuffing envelopes just because the body is limited. Disability benefits will be cut for those who do not make the effort. However, the article also profiled people with the mental abilities of a two-year-old, who need constant attendants and just to prevent them from hurting themselves through their spastic or compulsive flailing; what possible employment would they find, their caretakers asked?

Beyond their disbelief, parents also expressed panic at the potential loss of other benefits: organized activities for their children, as well as respite care to relieve the parents of constant, vigilant caretaking.

And it was here that I had a flash of insight from our summer with Toby. I thought of how irritated and exasperated I become when I am telling him to LEAVE IT for the 87th time, when he flails and bucks me while I try to clean his wounds and I think, for heavens sake I'm HELPING you here, is a little cooperation and appreciation so much to ask?

And that's just with a dog. For something minor. Imagine magnifying that up thousands of times, to a child with disabilities or a spouse with Alzheimers, and having constant, relentless duties, vigilance, perhaps with somebody who shows no ability to understand or appreciate what you're doing, who treats you like the enemy even when you're trying to help. Imagine that there's no end in sight other than through death or institutionalization. It absolutely boggles the mind.

There's a scene in Iris when her Alzheimer's is quite far gone, but she is still living at home, cared for by her husband John (nicely played by Jim Broadbent). Iris gets away, and the police come to the house, and we see it through their eyes: filthy, with rotting food and piles of dishes and heaps of trash everywhere. And you want to say to the police, you don't understand, you don't see what this man has had to face. Sure, he could make different choices; he could put Iris in a home, he could hiring a cleaning lady. But unless we've walked in those shoes, who are we to judge?

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