Narrators are friendly, and enjoy the company of others, but they’re also happy to be left alone to work in peace. This means that it can be easy for them to drop out of communication with others, especially if they’re busy with a special project that takes a lot of thought and focus. On the other hand, they often welcome surprise calls and visits. It’s not that they don’t want to see others, it’s just that they forget to seek the company of others when they’re absorbed with something else.
Reelika was an artist. When she was working on an especially large, detailed project, she’d become totally focused on her work, staying in her studio except to eat or sleep, ignoring her email and social media accounts, and turning off the ringer on her cell phone and her landline. She didn’t see the problem with her behavior. She’d done this her whole life. Why should she change now that she was in her 70s? Meanwhile, her nephew Zemenu was at his wits’ end. Every time there was a news story about someone who had been discovered days after their death, he thought ‘That could be my aunt.’ He worried that, living alone, she could catch the flu or fall and injure herself. No one would notice, since they were used to her disappearing into her work.
He stopped by his aunt’s house one afternoon. As usual, she answered the door covered in paint and beaming. “Zemenu! I’m so glad you’ve stopped by. You simply have to see what I’ve been working on! It’s glorious!” She dragged him into her studio to show him her latest work, and fixed him a cup of tea from the electric kettle on the corner table. “I’m just having a bit of trouble with this area over here,” she explained. “It’s a real puzzle.”
“I know you’ll figure it out, Aunty,” Zemenu replied. “You’re a great artist and you’re dedicated to your work.” He cleared his throat. “Except, sometimes I think you might be too dedicated? I haven’t heard from you in a week, and I worry. Could you check in a little more often? Maybe just a text?” “I mean to, Zemenu. I just lose track of time.” “What if you keep your cell phone on the tea table? Then whenever you fix yourself a cup, you could text me so I know you’re OK. I promise not to reply unless you ask me to, so you won’t get distracted.” Reelika, agreeable as always, thought the new routine sounded like a great idea. It would let Zemenu stop worrying, but allow her to keep focused on her work.
Narrators take pride in being helpful and competent. They’re also people-pleasers who have trouble turning down a request for help. In some situations, this can mean a perfect storm of over-commitment and exhaustion. Because your loved one hates letting people down, she may need help to scale back on her commitments to family and community and so that she can take the time to meet her own needs.
Cindy was enjoying her retirement. On Mondays and Wednesdays, she volunteered in the Genealogy Room at the local library, helping people research their family trees. Tuesdays and Thursdays, she babysat for her son’s children. Friday was her day to help out at the nursing home, visiting patients and reading to those with poor eyesight. Most weekends were taken up with her grandchildren’s sporting events, and several evenings a week she sat on various community committees. She’d worked hard at a thankless job for many years so that she could support her children and put them through college. Now it felt good to finally spend time volunteering, doing the things she loved, and spending time with family.
Her daughter, Elena, grew concerned after Cindy was in a car accident. “I’m fine, honey,” Cindy argued. “I just drifted off at the wheel for a moment. But I can still see, my mind is still sharp. It could happen to anyone.” “Mom,” Elena replied, “I love how you spend all your time helping other people. You’re so generous with your time and talents, and you do a lot of good in our family and around town. But I’m worried that you’re so busy you’re not getting enough sleep.” Cindy admitted that most nights, she was lucky to get four hours. “Mom, you need to think about cutting back. Maybe make a list of everything you do in a week, and see what you can drop so that you can get 8 hours of sleep a night? We can talk about it again next week, after you’ve had time to think.”
Narrators are usually quiet, contained, but content. While these are great traits during the good times, they can be dangerous during bad times. Family members and caregivers may overlook depression in a narrator because the changes are subtle, but ultimately very serious. If you suspect a narrator is depressed, you may have a difficult time getting him to open up about his feelings. After all, he never really discussed feelings before, so why should he start now, when they’re unpleasant? You may have to take a more fact-based and detached approach to get your narrator the help he needs.
Neena’s father, Sanjit, had always been impeccably groomed and cheerful. An engineer, he spent years traveling the world and fixing the robots in industrial plants. He’d helped his wife raise two successful children, and in his retirement he donated his time and talent to a local charity which connected underprivileged youth with mentors in STEM fields. He’d been proud whenever one of his ‘new kids’ did well in school and in college. Then one of his students was killed in a drive-by shooting as he walked home from a tutoring session.
After the funeral, Sanjit grew quieter than he’d ever been. He was losing weight, pulled back from his community involvement. When Neena’s mother decided to travel to India for a grandnephew’s wedding, she asked Neena to keep an eye on him. Her father’s condition was worse than she’d suspected. With her mother gone, he wore the same clothes for days and forgot to shower. He lost even more weight. The once-confident world-traveler was a shell of his former self.
Neena knew her dad wasn’t one for long discussions of feelings, so she began with the facts. “Dad, you’re not taking care of yourself like you used to. Paul’s death has been hard on you, and your health is suffering. It’s time to talk to your doctor, or a therapist.” Her father hemmed and hawed, saying he’d be better in no time, that he just missed her mother. “Dad, I’m really worried,” Neena said. “Can you come up with a list of people you’d be willing to talk to, just to set my mind at ease? You’ve been such a support to Paul’s family through this, but you need to take time for yourself, too.” Her concerned but non-confrontational approach convinced her father to give therapy a try, so that he could work through his feelings in the wake of his student’s death.
Narrators are used to being capable and reliable. In early retirement, they’re likely to be known for their knack for fixing things, crafting, or gardening. They’re involved in the community, and the people everyone asks for help. However, this lifetime of being capable and self-sufficient means that when a narrator loses her ability to perform certain tasks, it can be especially painful.
For years, the whole neighborhood had loved and admired Meryem’s garden. She spent hours every day planting, weeding, trimming and cultivating her little patch of yard. She carefully planned each season’s work, and used perennials to ensure that something was always in bloom. This year was different—Meryem had broken her ankle in the spring, and her garden was suffering. However, she kept trying to tend it, even when the doctor told her to stay off her foot.
Zehra, her niece, knew her aunt hated the thought of giving up her garden, so she set clear boundaries for their conversation. “Aunt Meryem, I’m not going to try to force you to give up your garden,” she said, “But I want to see if we can come up with ways to make it easier for you while your ankle heals. What sort of help or changes are you willing to consider?” Because Zehra stated at the outset that this was not a confrontation and that certain unacceptable options were off the table, Meryem was able to come up with possible solutions. Together, the women decided to hire a local high school youth to help her in the garden for 10-12 hours a week. That would let Meryem maintain control and still enjoy her garden, while letting her have a rest from the heavier chores.
Narrators often pride themselves on their ability to help others. They make deep, long-lasting friendships. They thrive on self-sacrifice. They’re practical, able, and sweet-tempered. They’re unlikely to grow isolated as they age, but the same sweet nature that makes them everyone’s favorite sidekick (think Sam from The Lord of the Rings) also makes them vulnerable to abuse. If your loved one is a narrator, it can be hard to get them to advocate for themselves, or even admit that there’s a problem.
Javier and Veronica had been married for more than sixty years. They’d immigrated together, raised their children together, and been each other’s center of gravity for most of their lives. Marisol knew that her mother was beginning to struggle with dementia, but her father insisted that he was fine, he could handle it on his own, and that they didn’t need help. Then Marisol started noticing the bruises. Her dad claimed he was on a new medication, and he was just prone to bruising, but none of the drugs in his cabinets listed bruising as a side effect. Something was wrong.
Marisol arranged for a sibling to stay with Veronica while she took Javier out to lunch and for a walk in the park. “Dad, “ she said, “I know the bruises aren’t from your medications. Can you tell me what’s going on?” They sat in silence for a long time while Javier gathered his thoughts. As Marisol had suspected, the bruises were from Veronica. “I still love her,” he said. “I want to take care of her.” “We can find a way to keep you safe and let you keep helping,” Marisol said. “We could get a live-in aid, or she could go to skilled care and you could live in an apartment in the same facility.” Javier agreed to consider his options, and Marisol made plans with her siblings to take turns staying with their parents until Javier decided which arrangement would work best for him.
Narrators love people, but they’re also comfortable being alone. When they’re having difficulties with their living situation, they’re unlikely to open up to another person—they don’t want to burden you with their troubles, and they’re often convinced that, with the correct plan of action, they’ll be able to make things right without help. A gentle, non-aggressive approach to their situation can help draw them out so that you can get them the help they need.
Ikuro had fond memories of visiting his Uncles Genjiro and Masahito in their little house by the bay. The brothers had lived together for most of their adult life, and the small house was neat, but full of interesting souvenirs from a lifetime of travel. After Uncle Masahito died, Genjiro stopped asking Ikuro over to dinner. He sounded stressed on the phone, but waved off any inquiries into his health. Finally, Ikuro decided to pay an unannounced visit to his uncle’s home.
What he found horrified him. Stray cats roamed the property and garbage was piled against the inside of the windows. When Genjiro answered the door and saw Ikuro standing there, he stammered and blushed. “Uncle,” Ikuro asked gently, “What’s happened? Your house looks so different.” “Masahito was always the one who kept it looking nice,” Genjiro said. “I’m just feeling a little overwhelmed. I’ll hire someone, and it will be better the next time you come.”
“Do you know who you’d like to hire?” Ikuro asked. “If you’d like, I can bring a few friends by next Saturday. We can help you sort through things.” This low-pressure approach gave Genjiro the space he needed to accept help cleaning the house. Ikuro knew that his uncle would also need new routines and habits, but would wait to discuss them until the initial crisis was over.