Riding the Whirlwind: Human Interactions and Emotional Resonance

On a recent visit to South Africa, I realized again the importance of traveling to bring fresh perspectives as well as new insights into human interactions.

Moral Compass: Political cartoon of Nelson Mandela by Zapiro
Truth be told, this is a difficult time politically in South Africa; and dealing with political views while visiting family can be interesting albeit quite disturbing at times. A political cartoon by Zapiro (Daily Maverick) stayed with me, as it connected to a dilemma that I encountered while visiting an elderly friend who lives on her own in Johannesburg. The cartoon depicts Nelson Mandela showing the way to go, while the current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, is caught up in a moral whirlwind (windvane) without an escape route. The depiction of “being caught up in a whirlwind” struck me as I reflected on the situation that my 91-year-old friend finds herself in.

My friend is losing her cognitive ability quite rapidly and is able to verbalize her difficulties. She lives in a government-subsidized apartment for old people and has no close-by family member to support her. She still drives her car (and gets lost frequently on familiar roads), which is the only way for her to get access to food. She has no family except for her son, who is staying in the United States. He has tried multiple times, unsuccessfully, to get her to relocate to the U.S., but she prefers to remain in South Africa.

As I  interacted with her son in the U.S. to share my observations,  I became aware of a whirlwind of emotions associated with my friend’s current living situation. The son’s anguish and frustration in dealing with his “stubborn” mother—who doesn’t want to come to the U.S.—was palpable. Yet, one can understand his mother’s need to cling to the familiar whilst trying to come to grips with her own deteriorating mental capacity. However, the emotion-laden, deep-rooted nature of the issue between mother and son seems to render the situation hopeless without much opportunity for a meaningful outcome. It is indeed difficult to free oneself from a whirlwind situation in which each participant digs into their own perspective to escalate the momentum.

Being aware that one is in a bind can be a major benefit in allowing one to move forward. However, when one of the participants is not able to self-reflect, the situation requires great understanding and patience. A negotiated outcome in traditional terms becomes less likely as the nature of the interaction changes:  One needs to meet the person more than halfway to allow for some connection with the individual who is experiencing deteriorating mental capacity.  It requires that one let go of one’s own preoccupations to allow for openness to find new meaning and direction in interaction. I then found myself thinking of  an interaction I had once recorded between a caregiver and an elderly adult with severe aphasia and dementia.

In this interaction, the caregiver talked with the individual in a way that is characterized by emotional resonance and caring. Due to the language and memory barriers experienced by the elderly adult, there is little prospect of developing meaning in interaction in the conventional sense. However, the caregiver is able to engage the adult in interaction and has a meaningful (albeit different) conversation with him. It is the emotional resonance between the two interactants that is most relevant.

Getting close to another requires more than exchanging and expressing opinions in interaction. Being with a person allows one to rest in the presence of the other without the urge to do anything with the person.  In a context where we are all busy and pressurized for time, this is, however, often really difficult.

As I wrote in my book, Augmentative and Alternative Communication—Engagement and Participation:

The ability to observe and match a person’s emotions as a means to ‘be with’ the individual is an essential step in identifying and adopting the appropriate intervention strategies to ensure meaningful outcomes.
(p. 246).

When  we deal with our parents and other older folks in our communities, we need to be aware of emotional resonance as a basis for meaningful interactions. Being emotionally with another provides the best basis for moving toward meaningful outcomes to challenging scenarios.

Do you have any thoughts or experiences on this topic to share?

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