“How are you?” It is a question we ask several times a day, and 99% of those times we really don’t want the answer. We expect the response to be, “I’m fine. How are you?” When someone answers with the truth, we are often caught off guard.

“Hi, Ernie. How are you today?” That was the question last Sunday. His response was a bit surprising. “I don’t feel good. I’m weak. My legs won’t work. My stomach hurts. I’m dizzy. I’m in a lot of pain.” The person asking the question responded with, “Oh, you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” Would you care to guess how that made Ernie feel?

Ernie is my brother-in-law, and he suffers from dementia brought on by a nervous/anxiety disorder from his time in the Vietnam War. In the last two years, his mother died, he moved from the family home to his own apartment, he had a heart attack, he had quadruple bypass surgery, he stayed in a rehab facility for a month, he returned to the hospital twice, and then he moved to an assisted living. 

Ernie complains a lot. I mean A LOT!! It is basically his only topic of conversation. When we visit with Ernie, we hear about bowel movements, lack of bowel movements, inability to walk (he tells this story while we are WALKING outdoors), pain everywhere, dizziness, no appetite (although he eats everything placed within reach), and many other ailments. Ernie has been tested from stem to stern, and no problem has been detected. Ernie is suffering from a strong belief that he is sick and dying. No amount of telling him otherwise will work.

Answering Ernie with a placating response only infuriates him. He will respond with, “You don’t believe me. I know you don’t believe me.” The fact is, we don’t believe him, but we understand that HE believes him! If he is convinced he is sick, his body will respond accordingly.

Maybe a better response would be, “Ernie, I’m sorry your sick. Tell me about it.” Those four words —”Tell me about it”—are magical. They open the door of conversation on any topic, and that conversation makes the individual feel more accepted and affirmed.

Ernie is a challenge for us. We certainly grow weary of hearing about and discussing his ailments. We wish he could return to the “Ernie” we knew before the recent events of the past two years. Maybe he will improve. Maybe he will not. He is family. He deserves respect. Ahh…. I have to remind myself of that.

Hope that gives you (and me) Something to Ponder.

Photo by Snugg LePup via Flickr