December 16, 2021

Is Your Cup Too Full?

By Denise Hyde, The Eden Alternative

Our minister began a sermon recently telling the story of the Zen master. The story goes that a university professor traveled to visit a famous Zen master to learn from him. They sat down and the Zen master served the professor some tea. While the Zen master was pouring the tea, the professor proudly shared all he knew about Zen. The master poured the tea cup to the brim and then kept on pouring. Finally, the professor could no longer restrain himself and said, “It’s full! No more will go in!” The Zen master replied, “This is you. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The story immediately sparked a thought for me. I have watched organizations make amazing transformations with person-directed care. The Elders thrive, the employees thrive, the organization thrives despite all the obstacles the broken healthcare system throws in their way. They have people waiting to come and work there, and Elders waiting to move in. Despite all the success, there are those who continue to doubt if these changes actually work.

Then, it happens, there is a change in key leadership roles, a change in ownership or a shift in corporate priorities and all the improvements are thrown out the window and the old institutional ways come back to dominate the lives of all the care partners. Hearts are broken, people flee their jobs and the resurrected “facility” to find a better home. For some reason, this is considered a perfectly acceptable response rather than an indication that something is terribly wrong. This is a conundrum to me.

The story of the Zen master offered another insight that may be part of the explanation. What if those who are so enamored with the institutional practices of caring for Elders are like that university professor? What if their cups are so full that they cannot be open to the possibility that there may be a better way? Maybe the system cannot be changed because those who have the wisdom, skills, resources and talents to make it change have their cups full of the wrong blend of tea.

A wise researcher, Sonya Barsness, once commented to me that “there is no proof that institutional care of Elders actually works.” That comment has been one that I have pondered long and hard and shared with many others. I have yet to have someone point me to a research study that demonstrates that caring for Elders as though they are living their life in a hospital, having departmental divisions and top-down bureaucratic decision-making lead to quality of care and quality of life for the Elders. In fact, the opposite is true (and I would say the 800+ pages of regulations echo that conclusion). And yet, there is research to show that person-directed care, changing the culture of care, growing self-directed work teams, blending roles, etc, makes a significant difference. Check out the research article from Signature HealthCARE’s Hometown division.

Maybe our cups are too full of institutional thinking and actions. I suggest we all take our lead from the Zen master and dump some, or all, of the old, institutional tea out. What if everything you were taught was based on the wrong assumptions and there is a better way? Adopt a learner’s mindset, be open to filling your cup with ideas and creating new practices that can truly create a life worth living for all care partners. It might be the beginning of a life worth living for you too!

Photo Credit: Justin Lim on Unsplash