Thursday, 8 February 2007

Who's Identity?

It took a while, but I managed to find a way out of the rectum, having disappeared up it thinking about you, me, I and thou. It got a bit smelly. My apologies.

However, these notions of personal identity continue to intrigue me. They've done so for ages, and will likely continue to do so. So forgive me whilst I indulge them some more.

I'm drawn to the idea that our identities are as much held by others, as they are owned individually. Can any of us narrate our life stories without reference to others?

Most, if not all of us, would describe our lives in terms of our relationships; Who we fell in love with, who influenced us, our best friends, our parents and how they screwed us up...

I guess this is why the 'Top 100' TV programmes are so popular. This cheap TV isn't meant to be watched alone, lest we loose the will to live. Remembering the top 100 hits of the 80's is only bearable when we put the shite music to one side and reminisce on the collective memories they provoke.

As ever with these things, identity is brought into sharp focus in the extremes of the human condition. I've the privilege of knowing people in late stage dementia. People who may live day to day, not recognising the people they love.

Yesterday I spent some time in one of my dementia care units. I do this quite frequently. When I do, I like to sit amongst 'residents' and get a feel for how life is in a nursing home.

Now, I know that because I'm a 'senior manager', staff modulate their approaches and try extra hard to be seen to care. But I believe firmly that in our units, people are cared for very well, and certainly not abused or eaten.

You see, the trick with our enterprise is not to objectify people. It's so easy to treat someone who's doubly incontinent, immobile and wordless as a waste of human flesh. After all, what would they know if we did?

The most powerful way of countering this is by telling the person's story. In narrating it and making it real, we can hold the person's identity on their behalf. This way, the person ceases to be a lump of flesh, and becomes an individual within their own context and narrative. In caring for the person, and hearing their stories we can become part of their identity, and they also become part of ours. We find ourselves intimately related.

It's much harder then, to treat somebody with a lack of respect.

Of course, this is far from a panacea for dementia care. If only it were that simple. Just knowing the person doesn't miraculously make it all alright. Family members will tell you this. I can tell you this, having lost both my Grandmothers to dementia.

One of the most upsetting conversations I have with family members is the 'He died years ago' one. It is painful, of course, when your loved one no longer recognises you, or starts to behave in ways that are out of character. It can feel like you've lost the person. Some people describe feelings of loss and grief - as if the person has died in all but bodily function. Some call this anticipatory grief.

However, if identity is something that we share, rather than posses then surely we remain who we are, regardless of how far we get 'lost' in dementia?

To quote Holly: Sometimes "I" and "you" fade, and only "us" matters.

How true.

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