During these uncertain times, SMoCA has invited artists and staff to utilize our blog Inspire as an outlet to make meaningful connections by sharing personal reflections and insight into their practice.
Entry #3: Patricia Moore
“My Mommy and Telephones”
Patricia Moore PhD
In this fearful time of pain and suffering, the daily news of elders, alone and afraid in skilled nursing facilities, unable to have the presence of family and friends, has been particularly heartbreaking for me.
My mind is flooded with the memory of the horrid moment when I looked into the tear-filled eyes of my beloved mother, as I hung a medical alert device around her neck. “This will keep you safe Mommy.” I insisted, even though I knew that with the passing of my father, her husband of 52 years, her daily life would never know the security of having her precious mate by her side.
I felt such failure as a daughter, her firstborn, having to leave her alone in our family home and return to my life in Phoenix. I had hoped that my Mother would live with me, but she wanted to be near her friends and the activities that defined the quality of life, in her birthplace. She was fiercely independent and confident that, in time, she would find a new normal, and she wasn’t ready to relinquish her autonomy.
But the recognition of my mother’s face that day that haunts me most is that she realized she was now a “thing,” a thing called old, and in need of the support of a product made for people like her. The failure I felt as her daughter in that moment of transition was surpassed by the agony I felt as a designer, a designer who was culpable for the lack of dignity in designs for this stage of life.
The device was an ugly thing. There had been no attempt to personalize it as a piece of jewelry, something a woman would be proud to add to her ensemble. It was an engineered solution and a poor one at best. It functioned, mechanically, but not emotionally. It was medical in orientation and not a consumer product of pride.
As my mother incorporated this strange and unwanted feature into her routine, she found it stressful. She accidentally engaged it with frequency and feared the false alerts were wasting my money and that like Chicken Little, one day, the operator might not respond to her when the need was real. The technology was failing to deliver on the promise of providing confidence and security. It was bad design.
Time does heal and my mother and I began to laugh about her “unwanted housemate” in our daily phone calls. Her complaints that it was stupid and ugly were replaced by her ingenuity of covering it with a pretty silk scarf or utilitarian apron. Evidence of true acceptance came the day she shared that she convinced her neighbor, a younger widow, that she really shouldn’t be living alone without an emergency monitor. I heard the pride return in her voice. She was a member of a “club” now, in fact, I think she imagined she was its leader.
During one of my frequent visits, I deliberately steered us to a walk past the T-Mobile store in her neighborhood mall. “Mom, let’s get you a cell phone.” I urged, for the hundredth time.
“You know I hate those things and I don’t need one. I have my emergency button!” I had to hide my smile of relief. I knew not to push her past her point of acceptance.
Since mobile phones entered our daily lives, my sisters and I teased mommy unmercifully about the way she held one of ours, when she would come for a visit and talk with our father, to share the details of her day. She held out a trembling hand, nervously, gently, barely grasping it with her fingertips, holding it like a baby bird that had fallen from a nest, as we passed it to her, scolding that it was just a phone. She feared she would break it. She respected the value of the technology and she felt it was beyond her user competence.
No matter how many times she successfully utilized the device, she never felt comfortable with it in her hand. As a Gerontologist, I was reminded, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” Alas.
The morning I looked at the Caller ID and answered with a cheerful, “Hello Mommy” only to hear the sound of my mother slowly and repeatedly pushing the buttons on her wireless handset, was a startling and unexpected wake-up call. I shouted, as loudly as I could, “Mommy! I’m on the line!” for several minutes before I finally heard her respond with a quizzical “Hello.” Confused by what had happened, I admit I answered inappropriately. I asked her why she was dialing over and over, when I was already on the line. She laughed dismissively and asked how my day was proceeding. We enjoyed a typical check-in chat and bid each other a good night and sweet dreams.
I didn’t sleep that night. Realizing that my mother had placed the handset in her lap and repeated the sequence of the call, forgetting that she had to pick it up and hold it to her ear—she never accepted using the “speaker” feature— was a recognition I hoped I would never experience. She had peaked. She was on a dreaded decline.
In the last few months of his 85 years, my father would forget to hit the appropriate button to end a call. The resulting “open connection” meant incoming calls were rejected with a busy signal—my father never learned to engage the call waiting sequence—and I would frequently call their neighbor and ask that they please go to my parents’ home to alert them to the issue.
My mother continued to repeat the unending scenario of pressing my number over and over, and my sisters and I realized this “interface failure” was one of many reasons it was unsafe for her to live independently. She moved into my youngest sister’s home. Over the course of her final year of life, our daily call had to be dialed for her. Her capacity to hear diminished rapidly and she refused the use of an aid. Her vision became so compromised, she couldn’t cook or manage her medications. She fell the week of her 89th birthday and died a month later, to a day.
This daughter misses her mother. This designer looks at the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters living in nursing homes and skilled care centers worldwide with the angst of the failure of design and technology to adequately meet their most basic of needs, communication.
Confused and unable to utilize the digital realm so many of us take for granted, members of the majority of our planet’s population who don’t own a smartphone are relying on the kindness of others to connect and call. If they are able, they make their way to a window and press hands against glass barriers as a poor substitution for a much needed hug from a loved one. And as the headlines are reminding us daily, far too many of our precious elders are dying alone in the failed isolation of the ultimate euphemism, a nursing “home.”
My last call with my mother came on a predawn morning. My brother-in-law excitedly shared that mommy had opened her eyes from a short coma, in a beautiful and humane hospice, where she spent the last week of her life. He held his cell phone to her ear and I heard her whisper one last time, “I love you.”