I heard a wonderful story on WNYC's Radiolab the other day. It was about how Alzheimer's patients who live in nursing homes can sometimes get disorientated and agitated. They want to leave the nursing facility and go 'home' — occasionally, home can even mean the home of their childhood. This is a very stressful situation and can lead to the patient being locked behind closed doors in order to keep them from wandering off and getting lost, or worse.
No one is happy with having to lock them in, so an elder care facility in Germany came up with a plan: they built a fake bus stop on the street outside their front door, complete with a bench and a sign. If a resident was acting up about leaving, instead of trying to talk them out of it, the staff would help them pack a bag, put on their coat, and take them to the bus stop. And there they would be left to wait for the bus to take them home. Which of course never comes.
"Isn't that kind of cruel?" asked the Radiolab hosts. "Isn't a lie?" But the nursing home staff reported that after sitting there for a period of time, the elder would start to calm down and eventually forget about their agitation to get back home. A nurse would then come out and have a conversation with them and if they were ready, the resident would happily walk back into the facility.
To me, this story is about a very difficult situation that was solved though acceptance and a playful, compassionate solution. Until the bus stop solution came along, everyone involved was fighting against reality. The patients, seized by their disease and against their will, can't help themselves. To them, their delusions are very real and must be obeyed. And the staff, by trying to force the elders into a conventional response, were frustrated and unhappy, too. So why not find a solution within the difficulty? Instead of trying to fix the problem, why not accept it and from that acceptance be guided towards a solution? How elegant, and civilized, and, ultimately, respectful.
So what does this have to do with food and cooking and our lives at the table? Well, this notion of finding a solution by first accepting the problem is excellent advice for life in general and since a lot of my life is spent either in the kitchen or sitting around a table eating, I find I can use it there, too. When something is giving me trouble, can I not fight against it? Can I just see it as an opportunity to stop, take a look around and find the graceful, if occasionally wacky, response?
This can be as simple as substituting almond butter for an unexpected shortage of tahini (in this recipe, last night) or refereeing a difficult and contentious conversation that arose around the table at a recent dinner party. And who hasn't heard of this classic save: dusting the top of your fallen chocolate souffle with powdered sugar and calling it a Chocolate Decadence Cake?
When disaster strikes (the dropped casserole, the spoiled fish) or the unexpected happens (the extra dinner party guest, the broken oven) I can't always find the grace to turn it into something grand. But now that I have the image of a bus stop in my head, perhaps I'll remember to look for a playful, kind and elegant response.
Or maybe I'll just run outside and wait for the bus.
- You can listen to the complete story, A Bus to Nowhere, on the Radiolab website.
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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted on August 8, 2010. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.