When a plea for new pillows is a coded request for help

PUBLISHED: 09:48 25 July 2018 | UPDATED: 09:48 25 July 2018

Annabel James   Picture:

Annabel James Picture:

Annabel James founded Age Space as an online resource for anything related to elderly care. It’s also a place to share new insights

I thought pillows to be small and inconsequential elements of everyday life until I found myself not understanding increasingly insistent requests from my mother to help her buy new pillows and pillowcases. It has taught me yet another lesson – and a new language - thanks to an admiral, a social worker and a seemingly innocent question.

You may remember US Navy Seal Commander Admiral William McRaven who became an overnight Youtube sensation speaking to a group of naval cadets, not as expected about the art of war, but about hum drum human activities such as making your bed.

He said that if you start every day by making your bed, then you’ve already accomplished one small task which will give you pride, and will encourage you to do another task, and another one. He said it’s the small things that matter and that together they can change the world.

The Admiral came to mind when I was talking to a social worker who specialises in assessing elderly people for additional help at home. She explained that often it’s hard for people to identify what they might need help with, whether out of fear of losing their independence, or because they’ve learnt to adapt to circumstances.

Her favourite question is: “How do you find getting up in the morning?” It’s innocent-sounding but in her experience draws the most useful responses. People tell her they struggle to get into the bath, or that buttons on blouses might be a bit fumbly. The tell-tale however is when they say that they can’t make the bed like they used to. This points her to a lack of mobility, dexterity and co-ordination, not to mention the loss of the admiral’s sense of pride at the start of the day.

I couldn’t translate the conversations about pillows until I connected the dots between the admiral, the social worker and my mum, who wasn’t really asking me to buy new pillows and pillowcases at all. I think it was her way of saying that she can no longer make the bed because she can’t physically manage fitting the pillows into the pillowcases. Requesting new pillows also gave her back a sense of control and pride for the family home she has kept immaculate for more than 50 years but now struggles to do.

Mum has her new pillows with lovely crisp pillow cases, and help with making the bed. She can now start every day once again with a small task that gives her pride. As I said, small things pillows, but they really changed her world.

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