Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Neutral Spaces

Neutral Spaces - 05, 2009

My mother is nearly eighty-nine and in frail health, which means I spend a fair amount of time in the company of doctors, nurses, specialists, generalists, technicians, therapists, care teams, pharmacists, people who read things, people who listen to things, people who call and check once a month, and people I have to call once a month to report her condition.

There’s little dignity in aging, especially if you don’t have anyone to run interference for you. I suspect more older folks than we might imagine just throw in the towel rather than deal with the paperwork.

In my experience, hospitals are the worst. There you are, incapacitated by one thing or another, dependent on the skills and kindness of strangers. Just when you could use some “high touch” the most, what you get is a lot of people poking you with pieces of “high tech” and chummily calling you by your first name even though you’ve never been introduced. They get in. They get out. They give you that old rhetorical, “Let me know if you need anything,” and breeze out of the room before your brain can get word downstairs to the lips that you have a question.

My healthcare clients talk a lot about their cradle-to-grave continuum of care. But when do you ever hear hospitals talk about continuum of communication? That’s just as important as quality of clinical care, probably more for some patients and their families. Most people who go into a hospital likely do leave in better condition. But at any given moment between admission and discharge, you’re pretty much on your own. A little information would ease a lot of anxiety, especially if you’re older and easily confused when you’re away from your usual surroundings.

One of the things I find most amazing about hospitals, considering all the people in them, is how impersonal they are. I’ve spent entire days in surgical waiting rooms full of people who never said one word to each other. Maybe it’s the stress. Maybe it’s the mixed vibes of hospitals; as a friend recently pointed out, people are being born on one floor at the hospital while they’re dying on another. Hospital staff, too, seems to skew toward the cooler, noncommittal end of the personality scale when they’re around patients and family. I guess they save their smiles for when they’re in the back halls with each other.

My mother’s occasional hospitalizations in recent years have given me the chance to make occasional contributions to a series I call “Neutral Spaces.”


  1. I think small town hospitals are better in that regard. In big city hospitals people still have their big city heads on, telling them to do the best practical job they can but not to get too involved. My brother used to be a nurse and has worked in both big cities and small towns. He said, without question, the small town hospital was a more personal operation in every way. I prefer cities myself, but small towns win there, I think.

    Strength to your mother, Chris. She is a lucky woman indeed to have you as a son.

  2. That's a very powerful image, Chris! My father's 85 now and he keeps telling me, "Don't get old, Sue." (I think he should have told me this sooner.) I watched my own mom physically fade away, and it was wrenching...My parents both volunteered in our local hospital for years, but I still think being a patient in one is never a pleasant thing. I do think often, hospital workers are more than ever pulled in a million directions, too, though, which could account for their own stresses and apparent coldness. If only we could all be healthy until the day we shut our eyes forever!