An End of Life Lesson: Why was Dad in the Psych Ward

An End of Life Lesson: Why was Dad in the Psych Ward

My dad and I were saying goodbye, knowing this would be the last time we would ever see each other.  While in an embrace, a hospital employee was tugging at his arm trying to get him into a scheduled session with other patients on the floor.  There apparently was a very strong emphasis on interacting with other patients as part of his “program” – whether he liked it or not.  I was appalled at their insistence and lack of empathy in not allowing us some privacy and a little more time to say goodbye to each other. Admittedly, they did not know (as he and I did) that this was to be our final goodbye.

Several days earlier, I had entered the hospital where Dad was admitted and was directed to the 8th floor – the psych ward.  What was Dad doing on a psych ward?  As I walked down a long hallway off the elevator, I passed by a woman who approached me and told me that the only reason she is still there is so the hospital could make money.  She seemed desperate to warn me that the same could happen to me.  I was quickly rescued by the the ward clerks who escorted her back to her room.  As I continued to walk toward Dad’s room I could hear another patient in one of the far off rooms screaming loudly about something I couldn’t make out.  I again asked myself, Why was Dad on the psych ward?

Admittedly Dad had been exhibiting some unusual behavior prior to entering the hospital.  From an outsiders point of view he at times appeared to have been drunk in that he was not as coherent as usual (although he never drank).  He seemed to have lost his inhibitions as well, undressing in front of us kids to try to find the medication patch that he had put on himself but forgot where.  He had no previous signs of dementia.  From the hospital staff’s perspective he exhibited a lack of interest in interacting with others which they interpreted as a symptom of depression, possibly requiring changing up his medications.

As I turned into Dad’s room what I saw – was depressing!  He sat in a chair, head down and arms folded.  The room was stark containing two hospital beds, a cabinet and a chair, that’s it.  There was no television, no clock on the wall and no pictures. If he wasn’t depressed now, surely he would be soon.  Why was Dad on the psych ward anyway?

As it turned out, Dad was admitted to the psych ward of this small Mississippi hospital in order to get a handle on his medications. Medications had been prescribed for various conditions, typical for an 86 year old man but primarily, the pain medication related to his recent diagnosis of mesothelioma.  Getting the correct medications right involved 24/7 observation while changing dosages and prescriptions.  He was there so they could observe his change in behavior so as to measure the results of the prescription changes. I was told that Dad’s “perceived” depression could be a result of improper medications.

Complicating possible improper medications, he had just found out he had mesothelioma  and then there was the other factor.  Mom had died just several weeks earlier (they had been married for 67 years).  No wonder they thought he might be depressed. I spoke with the supervisor on the floor and heard his explanation that one of the measuring sticks as to how depressed Dad was, was his level of interest (or lack thereof) in interacting with other patients on his floor.  They had scheduled group sessions that he was required to attend where they played cards or learned flower arranging.  I pointed out to them that Dad in his best retirement years would never have played cards nor attended a flower arranging class, let alone interact with strangers, unless Mom made him.  And he was not depressed then.

Dad derived joy out of life in other ways.  I felt that measuring his willingness to attend such sessions should not be the measuring stick by which they were deciding if they got their medication doses right. Dad however was more understanding than I.  He felt that he had been admitted into a “system” that had a life of its own.  The hospital and physicians had a system of policies and procedures and the staff needed to work within that system in order for them to do their job and find the answers. I was loathe to keep Dad there.  I knew he had already come to terms with his diagnosis of mesothelioma and I knew that he knew he didn’t have much time left.  I also knew that without Mom he really didn’t want more time.  I chose not to bring this up to his attending physician.  Who am I to say what role medications or depression (if there was any) had in his current outlook?  And what could they do with this information anyway? They, as healthcare professionals, were required to try to make him “better” – or get sued for not trying.  After all, that is our system.

There are many directions this story could take from here but I will just point out the one which I am most qualified to speak on.  That lesson: “Maximizing the quality of care of an individual requires “knowing” that individual. A systematic approach to caregiving where all patients are treated the same cannot possibly be the optimal solution because all people are unique.”

It is this uniqueness where I have decided to focus my attention for the remainder of my own existence.  My goal, both within institutions and to consumers directly, is to help people share stories of their life experiences so that others will have the opportunity to know them as unique individuals rather than just patients or as just parents or grandparents.

I myself regret I did not ask the questions and spend the time to get to know Mom and Dad as individuals earlier. Had I done so, I surely would have enriched their lives just by showing an interest.  I would have better understood who I am as an individual for all of us are in part a product of who we came from both genetically and experientially.  And last but not least, by sharing their stories and my own stories with my kids and grandkids they would have a family narrative that would allow them to feel a part of something much bigger than themselves.  They in turn would care more and that is something worth pursuing.

Maybe Dad was on that psych ward to teach me this lesson.

The Declining Value of Age: People and Antiques

The Declining Value of Age: People and Antiques

Daniel Stein Antiques, San Francisco, photography by Ken Bredemeier,

How are people like antiques?  The value of antiques increase over time because they become more rare.   A person’s value increases because he or she becomes wiser as a result of a lifetime of experiences. However, I’ll be the first to admit that this concept flies in the face of what our society is saying about older people and of an antiques market not as robust as in past years.  Both antiques and older people are struggling through a decline in interest within the younger population.

Having photographed thousands of antique objects and hundreds of antique dealer showrooms over the years, it may have been inevitable that my interest in old things now includes the antique dealers themselves (not that they are old mind you, but will be some day) as well as the older population in general.

In William H. Thomas’ book, What are Old People For?, he points out that our society treats the aging process as a disease, something to avoid at all costs.  Mr. Thomas states that a whole industry has sprung up to ward off aging.  Anti wrinkle creams, Botox injections, human growth hormone treatments are just some of the “solutions” marketed to us to help prolong, or hide the aging process.  The waning interest in antiques and in old people seemingly go hand in hand, or at least represent two separate phenomena that are running in parallel.

On the antiques side, the interest in antiques (while historically cyclical) is certainly in a down cycle at the moment.  But I can’t help but think that something else is going on, something related to both antiques and the older population.  The value of age seems to be lost to our younger generations.

Antiques and old people can teach us a lot about our history.  Both have withstood the age of time (in relative terms).  Every antique object (and older person) has a unique story to tell.  Antique objects offer a glimpse into the past.  They offer a tangible connection with lives from generations of long ago.  An antique object serves to connect us with our pasts and in doing so derives its value.  Herein lies where I believe many antique dealers have the opportunity to revive their market. By providing a narrative that tells the story of the object (and the people using or making it) helps forge a connection to the past adding interest and (subsequently) value to the object.

On the people side, using the definition of an antique as something that is 100 years old or older, most people never themselves become antique.  But they too can connect us with a distant past by sharing the memories of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives and experiences as well as archiving their own life experiences for future generations.

Maybe if we older people find a way to instill a sense of value in our own family narratives (history), the appreciation of objects that relate to that narrative and of that time will appreciate as well. If antique dealers do a better job of revealing the stories behind an antique while older people do a better job of revealing the stories of their own life experiences, the younger generation will take note and come to better understand and appreciate both. was created to help develop, preserve and share personal stories and the stories of objects – one short story at a time.


Understanding the Family Narrative

Understanding the Family Narrative

Breathe Life Into Your Family Tree

How well do you know your family members? Why should you care?

Studies have shown the benefit to children knowing the stories of their grandparents and feeling they are part of something much larger than themselves.


eOurStoriesAreUs is a website that was designed to provide a structure and set of tools to engage family members in creating oral histories around the family photo collection.

Most of us over 40 know someone who has lost a parent or grandparent regretting that they did not ask them questions about their life experiences?  Let’s face it, taking the time to get to know someone for who they are as a person rather than a parent or grandparent means taking the time to step outside of themselves and entering into the space of another person’s history.

Taking the time to interview and capture stories of loved ones is not an easy thing to do when career and raising family seems to be the order of the  day.

This is why was created. It does not need to be a big project. Our system leads you through the process one short story at a time and is perfect for all those milestones each individual passes through like birthdays, courtships, anniversaries, even deaths. 

When creating a short story celebrating any of the milestones your life and your loved ones will be enriched in the moment and loved one’s memories will live on.

A “Write” of Passage: The Life Review

A “Write” of Passage: The Life Review

Someone in your family is approaching the latter stage of their life. Whether you are talking about it with them or not, looking back on one’s life experiences is as natural as the very young anticipating future milestones.

As we age, questions creep into our consciousness such as “Who am I? Did I make a difference? What is life all about? Does anyone really care? Will anyone remember me after I’m gone? What really happens after death?

Our previous blog, “Acknowledge the life of someone you love“, highlighted the importance of helping a parent or grandparent review their life. Doing so helps them answer some of these questions and as a result allows them to depart this world with a deeper sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and appreciation for their life. Just as importantly, having helped them you will have helped yourself. You will have dodged the bullet of regret that you never really got to know them, or failed to show the love and appreciation you had for them.

The impossible turned fun.

When I looked at the albums and boxes of photos and slides my parents had accumulated and stored away in the closet, it seemed the job was too big for any one person,  But after thinking through the problem we found it helpful not to think about the job as one giant project, By realizing that the photo collection can be broken down into discrete phases of life, it began to look more like a fun and rewarding opportunity to capture just one short story at a time.  It turned into somewhat of a tradition at family gatherings to take a group of photos relating to a specific time or subject and spend quality time sharing recollections. was born from my need to create a system to organize, archive and record stories in an easy, fun and entertaining way. While having these stories to hand down to future generations is really great, what was even greater was the process.  Engaging with mom and dad during the process was an enlightening journey that resulted in us bonding even more.

Bottom line, don’t put off helping your parents and grandparents capture their stories. Do it one short story at a time. You will never regret it.

Acknowledge the Life of Someone You Love

Acknowledge the Life of Someone You Love

Taking the time to acknowledge the life of a person is the greatest honor you can bestow on another human being. 

We all want to be remembered. We want to have made a difference in this life. As we age to the point where we begin to contemplate our own mortality, this desire becomes more prevalent, whether talked about or not.  Few people will speak up and ask for their lives to be acknowledged.  However, my experience in creating stories of an individual’s or couple’s life experiences, whether in DVD, photo book or online slide shows always results in the same response – typically involving tears.

Acknowledging a person’s life is not rocket science. It is only matter of showing an interest in someone’ life experiences.  The act will be a meaningful and rewarding experience for everyone. Typically these “life reviews” are motivated by various milestones such as 50th wedding anniversaries or memorials.

For Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary, we got together and reminisced over old times.  While it was great to get together it was a missed opportunity for us in that we did not really explore their lives in any detail.  Since their passing, so many questions now come to mind. While we all can intellectually understand the value of acknowledging one’s life, the unfortunate reality is that our lives are just too hectic to find the time to do it.  As a result many people wait too long to bestow this honor even for their parents or grandparents.

Equally unfortunate, as memories fade or worse yet the parent or grandparent dies – a great opportunity for creating and preserving the family narrative slips away. Fortunately for our family, Mom and Dad anticipated that we would be interested and they developed their own written narrative about their lives.  Still, they could not anticipate the direction our questions would take and as a result there is a level of regret in the form of unanswered questions that hopefully you need not experience, if it isn’t already too late.

Your parents and grandparents are individuals who have had a lifetime of experiences worthy of sharing.  Don’t put off engaging them in conversation about their lives.