The Voice of Experience: Walking in someone else’s shoes increases understanding

Web Lead

They say to understand someone we need to walk in their shoes. Sometimes that situation happens spontaneously, and I am learning what it is like to be immobilized on one side of the body. I am learning what it feels like for many who live alone with physical restrictions, and how to adapt and work on “manual” and be creative with limited movement.

It all began on Jan. 2 when climbing down off the deck. The ladder slipped as I put my second foot down. Fortunately, I did not injure my head or spine, but cannot use my left shoulder or arm, and the left leg cannot bear weight or move without help from the right arm.

What a learning experience! Now I have lost my job as assistant chimney sweep! I am learning to slow down, and am surprised how the body is adapting. My left thumb is in a cast so I cannot hold things with it. However, my left index finger and middle finger work hard to compensate. I cannot walk but I can do a soft shoe shuffle with both feet across a smooth floor for short distances. I can now limp up our 14 stairs standing up. Before I had to lift the left leg up with the right arm as I humped up each step on my rump. I am fortunate to have a husband who is very patient, kind and helpful, but I make sure I learn to be as independent as I can for when he is out.

I feel confident I shall be fully functioning by summer. However, I can’t imagine what it must be like to realize recovery may never allow me to move easily and without pain. Every simple task requires planning, slow movement, and energy. One tires easily doing the simplest tasks.

Trying to open a pill container is enough to drive the most patient person to smash the thing with a hammer. I can’t unscrew anything because of the cast on my left forearm. Those with arthritis or related problems have all kinds of similar difficulties. I try putting a jar under my left armpit while attempting to unscrew the top with my right arm. (The cast on the left lower arm is too slippery to hold a jar.) It works sometimes and not others. Like many people, I have learned to take my shopping bag with what needs to go upstairs on my shoulder so I can hold on to the bannisters with the good arm.

It is easy to think that someone looks OK and can manage themselves, but there are so many actions which are either very difficult or impossible when a limb’s mobility is impaired. Some things can be dangerous without full mobility, but for many seniors or others that do not have home help or regular family visits, many things must be half done or regretfully not done — for example, foot care, proper bathing, food preparation, cleaning or even tying shoe laces, and many more. So when we meet someone with health challenges, any offer of help with even small things is usually appreciated. Remember, though, we all have our pride so we don’t like to admit our shortcomings. Ask in a way that acknowledges the person’s dignity!

This experience is teaching me greater compassion and patience, and I see that product design and packaging is in need of serious research. Seniors and baby boomers form the largest market now and it is about time we started to look at how better to serve this group with user-friendly products. What is the sense of childproof packaging if we can’t open it as adults? The designers of packaging need to research users with various types of handicaps and mobility challenges.

In our fast-paced lives, it is easy to be unaware of people who are in some way unwillingly isolated. Living alone with nobody on hand to help can pose serious and possibly dangerous situations. Apart from the frustration of physical limitations, there is an emotional loss of control and, in many cases, a lack of confidence, personal self-worth and dignity.

With the large increase in the senior population, and thus a greater percentage of people with mobility or dexterity issues, we need to raise the issue of user-friendly products and packaging, and education on simple, safe ways to improve dexterity and mobility in the home, support groups or organizations. We are all in this world together and by caring and helping each other we can improve the quality of life for those lonely, shy and without families.

Christine Munkerud is a volunteer with Creston’s Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.