Today I cried down the phone to a stranger.
It’s not the first time I’ve done this. During my two years in the emotional wilderness following my separation, I regularly cried in front of people I’d only just met. Real estate agents, bank managers, municipal officers, shop assistants—no one was safe. Some of them – the consequential strangers – made a lasting difference to my life.
For some months now, my mother hasn’t been in the best of health.
It started with my father’s death ten months ago. We used to joke that between them, my parents had one decent brain. They found it as funny (and as poignant) as we did, but each managed to fill in the blanks for the other in a happy reciprocity.
Now Dad’s no longer there, Mum has no one to jog her memory on the day-to-day – sometimes moment-to-moment – basis necessary to live well on her own. A fall three months ago resulted in a hospital stay, followed by rehabilitation. She returned home after three weeks, frailer but ambulant thanks to her new walker. For several weeks, she made slow but steady progress. Bringing up five children has finally started to pay off: we were around to help with household chores, make medical appointments, encourage her to do her exercises and provide her with company when she wanted it.
Over the last few weeks her pain levels started to increase, her short-term memory grew shorter, she found it hard to get out into the garden. Her walks became less frequent until they were confined to just getting around the house.
When our parents age, we become their advocates.
In the ideal scenario, the medical professionals band together to provide the best possible care. They do their best to keep both patient and their family informed. In practice, correspondence between general practitioners, hospitals and patients sometimes fails. Discharge documents go astray.
When communication is lacking, patient advocates sometimes try to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle to maximise outcomes for their beloved elders. Incorrect conclusions may be drawn in the absence of accurate information. Feelings of powerlessness, of not being heard, can lead to frustration with the aged care system.
Today an unknown hospital administrator became the latest of the consequential strangers in my life.
Alison took my phone enquiry about my mother’s medical files. Her unexpected empathy after weeks of brick walls and bureaucracy overwhelmed me. She asked me to give her 30 minutes to locate the hard copies and speak to some people. It only took her 20 minutes. She listened as I explained our situation and gave sound advice as to how to proceed. Most of all, she told me to trust my own instincts and continue to advocate for my mother.
Life is full of consequential strangers like Alison. Leaving ourselves open to chance encounters can have rewards on both sides of the ledger. Sometimes we listen, sometimes we are heard. Either way, our lives are the better for it.