||IT'S 2016. WE CAN DO BETTER
Susan V. Bosak, MA
Social Researcher, Legacy Project for YOU 177
When I called the morning of December 25 to wish her Merry Christmas, the phone was disconnected.
The last time I spoke to C a couple of weeks ago, she didn't sound well. I live a distance away and had tried at that time to get a social service agency to check on her. It wasn't a 911 emergency, but I sensed she was in trouble. Despite making several calls, I couldn't find a warm hand to reach out to her. All the agencies and organizations needed her to come to them. It wasn't in their "mandate" to reach out.
Although I had never been to the public housing building in which she lived, I knew I had to go see whether she needed help. I was scared – as much for what I'd find as of the building itself.
When I got there, I was right to be scared. The even scarier part is that there's a waiting list of tens of thousands of people who want, or need, to live in this building. Straight out of a gritty New York police drama, there was a used needle in the stairwell. Filthy fluorescent lights flickered overhead. Mothers scolding children and men swearing echoed through the apartment doors into the steamy, dim hallway.
As my husband and I looked for C's apartment, a neighbour helpfully offered that C was that crazy lady who had been shouting Bible verses in the hallway during the night as she waved around a knife.
A moment after I knocked on the apartment door, I heard the click and sliding of several locks and chains. C opened the door waving a large piece of lumber over her head.
Merry Christmas, I said.
If We Can't Do It, No One Can
C got lost in a maze of systems. Ask anyone who works in one of the many municipal, provincial and federal systems, and they'll tell you those systems need fixing.
But more than fixing systems, we need to reclaim our humanity.
My wish for 2016 is that we change the way we look at social problems – not as systems that need to be fixed, but as a challenge in nurturing smart, caring communities that are supported, not thwarted, by the systems we create.
If we can't do it, no one can.
At a recent YOU 177 Innovation Forum at York University, Rahul Bhardwaj, President and CEO of the Toronto Foundation, talked about Canada's responsibility as an international leader (see video excerpt above). This country is in so many ways the world's "goal," a hopeful example of what's possible. "We're the petri dish for the planet," says Bhardwaj. And yet, while we're great at having and talking, as we face increasing national and global challenges, we're falling behind in caring and acting.
C had been a productive, contributing Canadian citizen. I don't think you can pay people to care. It may be part of someone's job to go through the steps of caring; but genuine caring comes from real hearts connecting.
C and I became friends when my father had a severe stroke. She was a Personal Support Worker (PSW) and came in to help take care of him and my mother, who has dementia. Being a PSW is hard work. C approached it with genuine caring. She was smart and had a smile that lit up a room. Nurses at the hospital complimented her work. She was one of the few people who understood what I was going through because she lived it with me. She always showed up. She always cared.
When my father died a year later, we hugged and we cried together. Without the additional veteran's support money, we couldn't afford to bring her in as much. She gave me a picture frame, into which I put a photo of my father that sits on my mom's dresser, and a little brown stuffed bear that sits on my mom's bedside table to watch over her.
Now, will we care about her?
When I walked into her apartment, what I found wasn't anger, but pain. She was clearly in mental distress. She has a history of mental illness, which is difficult and complicated enough in itself. But she had also fallen through the cracks of the healthcare system.
She was now unemployed. She had run out of money, got caught in a credit card trap, and is on disability. She apparently had a case worker. But that system wasn't giving her what she needed either.
When she had been working as a PSW for a homecare company, the hours were long, the demands onerous. She ended up in a live-in situation where she was basically on-duty 24/7.
That isn't good for anyone, let alone someone with a history of mental health issues. Our system of worker protection isn't making many inroads on this problem.
In C's apartment, you could see that she once cared. But now the apartment was cluttered and in disrepair. The affordable housing system, or lack of one, had let her – and so many others – down. She is dangerously close to homelessness.
In her manic state, the disjointed conversation twisted and turned. She had felt racism; she said you could see it "in the eyes." She has no other family or friends here. She returned again and again to her children. There are photos of them all around her apartment. Worrying about the vulnerability of her young daughter, she had taken her back to Africa several years ago to be raised by her grandmother. C no longer has access to her son, who still lives in Canada. Her ex-husband had been abusive. Had the judicial system protected her? She didn't curse her ex-husband, but instead went on about fairness. She had carried her son for nine months in her body. Then she carried him in her arms as a baby. She had rights, she said.
C came from a small village in Africa. In that community, it was a hard life without much money, but she said people took care of each other. If you needed something, people helped. Her husband brought a young, naïve bride to Canada. She had expected a family and an education – a good life. Now she says Canada is cold and hard, and has too many rules that don't help you. She wants to "give back all her papers" and go home to Africa.
When she was helping with my father, I had asked her once about her dreams. She surprised me by saying she had wanted to be a politician – to fix things.
In my work, I look beyond systems. My analytic framework is lifetimes across generations; my focus is psychosocial wellbeing. I put people, not systems, first – which sadly isn't the way the real world often works. It should. Yes, there's a recognition in healthcare of being "patient-centred," or in education of being "student-centred." But our systems are deeply siloed and the momentum of any given system often bulldozes our humanity.
I use intergenerational connections to try to add humanity back, and as threads to sew together broken systems in new ways. Instead of systems, we need smarter, more caring community ecosystems.
I see the potential of the intergenerational threads everywhere.
As I spoke with that neighbour in C's building, a little boy, maybe three years old, came out into the hallway. The floor was filthy. He had bare feet. He smiled at me and gave me a little open-fisted wave. What would his future be, I wondered?
C trusted me. I was able to get her to come with me to the hospital. If you're looking for raw humanity, a hospital is one place in our society you can find it. People are born there, saved there, and die there.
At one point, a healthcare worker asked C how they could help her. C doesn't realize at this moment how sick she really is. She made it clear that she doesn't care if she lives or dies. But she does want one thing: her son. Does he know how much his mother loves him? I hope so. I told C she has to get better because her son needs her. That made a difference.
Nurses at the hospital tell me that as ill as C is right now,
she's most often very pleasant and kind. She also likes to help by cleaning up the ward.
C and I had talked in the past about some of the elderly patients she helped care for. She had told me she doesn't understand this country. Here, we "hide away" old people, we put them in hospitals and nursing homes. But what old people need most are young people. At home in Africa, old people were part of the community and everyone helped them when they needed it.
C recalled caring for several old people in Canada who were dying. Why, she had asked me, were so many of those families fighting about the estate and the money, instead of holding the person's hand as they died?
There are so many smiles out there we need to bring back. This is Canada, and we can do better.
I want to help bring C's smile back. I hope that with the right medication, she'll feel better soon. Once that happens, she needs caring. It's as simple, and complicated, as that. She needs a safe, structured environment. She needs a regular routine and professional support in the short term. Eventually she'll need an appropriate job and maybe even a chance at some more education. And she needs to see her son.
She has such a beautiful smile.
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