First published on Conductor on Saturday, 14 November 2009
Questions at the Working Men's Club
I have a men’s stroke group at the moment. A sort of working men’s club, with me as the only female member. They seem to be loving it.
We have a lot of fun and we work very hard. Sometimes I have to be really strict as they lark about so much but we can also be very serious at times.
I think that maybe for some of them I am one of very few people in their lives, perhaps for some the only person, who talks to them about the invisible problems that are part and parcel of being disabled by a stroke.
I get the group talking to me and to each other about their lives. Their partners come to the group and we get them talking about their lives too.
I encourage them to ask each other questions by doing the same myself. They talk to me and then to each other about what is going on every day in their personal lives. They do not only talk about their aches and pains, slow movements and spasticity, their double vision and other symptoms. They talk too about how their disabilities and invisible problems affect their whole families.
On Thursday there was a breakthrough, most probably influenced by having a new member in our midst. This new member is someone who still has such a long way to go before he joins in our conversations spontaneously but who is being included in everything that is said nonetheless.
This long-established rest-of-the-group have learnt from me how to ask questions. They do it just as I do, encouraging our new group member to take part. They are actually getting really so good at it that I tell them that they do not need me anymore. I can take a back-seat, I have just about lost my job!
Although when I threaten to leave them to it they are not quite ready to try it out.
The group is now aware that they can help each other by asking questions and that by doing so they can also help themselves. Not only because they are practising their speech and recall of words but because they also put their abilities to visualise themselves in someone else’s position into practice. they begin to learn to empathise with each other. After a stroke this ability is often lost, or when not lost often it cannot be expressed.
In the group they learn how to consider what other people may be experiencing and look at this in relationship to their own lives. They realise how invaluable their own experiences are and as they learn how to share these experiences with other members of the group, they begin to notice that they can also teach others. Including me.
People who have only recently suffered a stroke really can benefit from the experiences of the others and this is what I encourage in our half-an-hour's so-called break. This is in fact a very important part of our programme, the “question and answer” time.
So the group is slowly taking over my job. What a joy it is to watch this. It is lovely to observe how the group members take note of how they can gently push our new member until they receive the appropriate answers to their questions. Somehow they know just how to do it.
They are always kind, they always wait expectantly for an answer. There is no pressure experienced, as perhaps there might be if I was the one to be doing the asking and trying to encourage speech.
They were, and some still are, all in the same boat, so they do not find it difficult to imagine or visualise how the other one feels. Many know from first-hand experience. In our group they learn to put this experience to positive use.
Not all stroke-sufferers remember this time immediately after suffering a stroke. This is not always stored in their memories. Through the make-up of our group, with beginners and advanced clients all working together, they are able to see what progress they themselves have made by being with the newer group members and watching how they progress. The new group members see and hear about the progress that is possible and are motivated, even when they know that it has taken some clients up to ten years to achieve some things.
The choir conductor
It is hard, even for me, to visualise how it was for one of my female clients who is not with us this month. Ten years ago she could hardly utter a word. She is my “singing client”, the choir conductor!
She is the lady who now cooks and cleans and sews and paints, speaks on the phone, uses the computer, sings and thoroughly enjoys life.
She phoned me a few minutes ago asking me for the URL of a newspaper article that I mentioned in my blog this week. She is off to court on Monday to fight her case for her carer, (yes, as ever it is about finances). She is gathering as much information as she can find on Conductive Education and the other things that she does to live her healthy life, to state her case. She is doing this mostly by herself, of course with the assistance and advice from her family and all who touch her life.
When we first met she could barely string two or three words together. This lady is now one of the best motivators in the group. She can explain in detail the processes that she went through in all areas of her progress and development. She describes the return of physical feelings, that at first were experienced as pain, she talks about re-learning all about her body imagine and the awareness of herself in space.
Best of all she describes how it was when she first started to speak. How she heard this strange noise and always looked around to see who was making it until one of her family told her that it was her. It was at this point that she started learning to speak properly.
This is the way our group works, sharing and learning and questioning and having fun in between.
The Russian, and me
It is a breakthrough enough to have this all going on in the group, but yesterday there was more.
One man went one step further and realised that I am there too. That he could communicate with me on a different level. He asked me:
“So what’s going on in your life?”
I must explain here that this man is from Russia. His speech and communication skills have improved over the past few years in leaps and bounds. He lives, just as I do, much of his day in his second or perhaps third language.
What happened when he had a stroke I can only guess at and ask his family. Of course, I do not speak Russian. I don’t know whether his mother tongue has been affected by the stroke in the same way as has his second language, I do not know how well he spoke his second language before the stroke. He now speaks it well, much better than when I first met him a year after the stroke. But I don't know whether this is recovery from the stroke or if he is learning to speak the language better.
He is now able to joke with us and show us his real personality. This is the stage that I love.
Working with people who speak and use two languages every day and have had a stroke is really very interesting, especially as I personally know what a muddle it can sometimes be speaking German and Hungarian every day and with English buzzing in my head.
This man is now able to relate very well to other people. He has progressed so far that he can visualise that they too have a life of their own. Hence the question he posed.
I am thrilled that he has progressed so far. He was brave and confident enough in the group to actually ask me about me and he asked so nicely. He wasn’t abrupt as stroke suffers can sometimes be, he wasn’t too inquisitive, he was friendly and worded his question subtly so I could answer whatever I liked.
I was so pleased that I really did give them a "snippet" out of my life.
I joked at first and said I had been out to dinner with a man!
It was true but his family had been there too, but initially it made them all wake up in anticipation of a rather different story!
I told them that I had been out to dinner the night before with someone I have been working with recently. It was a sort of a "thank-you" and family, with his nine-year-old daughter, was there too. I told my group about what a pleasure it had been to be in this child’s company and how much I had learnt from her that I can use in my work.
I explained that often physically disabled children are not as far advanced in their social and emotional development as their non-disabled peers. Contact, as I experienced at the dinner, are invaluable to me, a huge learning experience. The little girl learnt something too as at her request we played some English games together between courses.
My stroke group found this "snippet" interesting, although I think that they would have prefered the romantic candlelight-dinner story that they had at first anticipated.
They realised that I spend a lot of my time with people with disabilities and the penny dropped that sometimes I needed some input from non-disabled children and adults.
Learning to ask questions is one big step, learning what to do with the answers is another.
I think they had a lot to think about with my answer. I could almost see the whirr in their brains as they thought about Susie and her life and her learning outside of the group.
A vital principle
What I bring into the group to help us solve our problems there has to come from somewhere. Just as the experiences of the group members,that they share and learn from come from their personal lives, so do many of mine.