By Ruth Dennis
Yesterday one of our elders made a statement that stuck with me “My physical therapist says baby steps are important.” Our elder was discussing her frustration with recovery from knee surgery. Mostly she was annoyed and unsure. She forgets what she is unable to do, she also gets scared to move at all. This can happen at the same time. Somewhere in the confusion of the moment she realized that it was important to keep making baby steps and to keep trying. Our elders may lose memory, skills, independence but they keep wisdom, intuition, and awareness. Baby steps are important. Right now, baby steps are all any of us have. One of my friends is a grandmother several times over. She keeps pictures of her grandchildren on her phone. She has all their 1st steps recorded on her phone. That first set of often shaky steps means the world to her. In her eyes, these first awkward, shaky steps are more beautiful than any dance that any ballerina could ever create. Right now, in some way or another all of us are taking baby steps. COVID has been a constant challenge, it has brought limits that most people have never had to consider into life. Masks, gloves, distance, fear, loss, and isolation have been everyday life for the past year. Progress right now is slow. The social skills and connections that we have always relied on all our lives were put on hold for a very long time. We face the need to re-learn how to be together. We will be awkward and unsure for a long time, but eventually with baby steps we will learn to connect again.
One of my gardening books calls mid-April to mid-May “the awkward time” they advise to take baby steps in preparing the soil, cleaning out the old debris from the past season, and gently begin to feed, water, and wait. They warn of frosts and setbacks mixed with days that are filled with warmth and the sight of blooms. This year “the awkward time” describes far more than iris beds getting cleaned. We are still in a place of limbo between closed and open. Many of us have had one or both of our vaccines, but still hesitate to hug a friend. The rules around all healthcare settings change frequently, sometimes in ways that seem illogical. Elders, caregivers, families all have a particular form of cabin fever this year. Winter needs to end. But is not quite ready to let go. It looks sunny and beautiful but is still windy, cold, and uncomfortable. Our progress on COVID has improved but we have not beaten this back yet. There are still outbreaks and variants. Meeting friends is still hesitant even with vaccine in arm. Visiting has this odd first date feel. Is something going to go wrong? Is this really going to be safe for us? Is everything ok? What are we doing? Maybe the gardening book has the right approach. Take baby steps, prepare the soil, clean out the old debris from the past season, gently begin to feed, water, and wait. Have faith and trust. Spring will come. We will grow again.
The baby steps matter. Tend to those you can. Understand that the masks, gowns, and weird seating is all part of tending the soil. Dealing with this is simply a way to feed and water a connection that is very valuable. This in between time is awkward, uncomfortable, and frustrating. It is especially frustrating on beautiful days when it is tempting to skip the baby steps and just move forward and get on with life. I had a discussion with a lady recently who does what I do. She creates educational programs for a hospital nearby. She spoke about how much her staff from CNAs to MDs miss the lunch time lectures and morning meeting talks that they held before COVID. She was surprised how much this time was missed. This seemed to be taken for granted before. The in-person cafeteria meetings and lectures that used to bring in people from outside to share other perspectives have not happened in the past year. She spoke about missing the human connection that just is not there online. We just really need to be in a room with other human beings than ourselves, people we do not see every day. Is there a way to make this happen? How will that look when it happens? Chances are that it will be awkward, with starts and stops, hesitancy and confusion. Visiting our elders has often been awkward and confusing, even before COVID. Now it is just as confusing for everyone else as for our elders. We get a little perspective on what it may feel like to have dementia. Boundaries are a struggle, our elders can lose the sense of any personal space, they can also withdraw because the struggle to process the stimulation that being near someone gives their senses. Often, they seem to swing between these two extremes. The thing that always inspires me is our elders keep trying. They forget to give up. So should we. Now is still the baby step time, the preparing the soil time. All of us miss the companionship of others. The perspective that people in our lives give is deeply missed. But what we miss is more than perspective, it is the ease of interacting, the casual, spontaneous, freedom that we all remember. The connections we took for granted are now missed. We miss the skills that create our relationships. Getting them back is slow, it will take time. But we are all beginning to take the baby steps. It is so easy to lose faith, but we really are getting there.
My friend who is the grandmother showed me a video of her 1st great-grandson taking his first steps just before COVID hit. I remember that little video now. This chubby baby with messy dark hair and huge hazel eyes, would pull himself up by holding on to the side of a tan couch. He would let go of the couch with one hand and then fall back to his chubby bottom and laugh. Then he would pull himself up again, put a foot forward and fall again. He kept doing this until he had one foot ahead of the other and both hands off the couch. That was his first step. The first baby step. But before that first step there were attempts and changes and falls. My friend is right. This is the most beautiful dance anyone could do. In some odd way we are all doing this dance now. This is about learning, not having a perfect outcome on the first step. It is that slow series of small moves that lead to taking that first step. After that first step came falls, but the steps kept coming. Our elder was wise to remember what her physical therapist told her. Baby steps are important. They are also beautiful. The first awkward moves to growing something new. We are all taking these steps, clearing away the old debris from a past season and starting again. All of this is about faith and trust. Faith and trust are hard right now, but that is what we have. Maybe all we have. Take baby steps and keep trying. Spring will come.