Raising “Cane”

He takes it with him almost everywhere he goes.

It has become a highly valued object in his everyday world.

“He” is my husband and “it” is his cane.          

As an occupational therapist, I had been aware of Ed’s instability and increasingly troublesome balance problems for a few years.  He had  begun to walk more slowly, and he started taking my arm when we were out and about.  He said on more than one occasion that his feet felt like “lumps of lead.”

This past January, a diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy was handed down and a referral made to physical therapy.  The physical therapist plunged right in to measure Ed for a cane to help his balance.

I found myself a bit amazed at Ed’s willingness and readiness to accept the idea of a cane in his life.  And now that we have it, I find myself surprised by how pragmatic he is about using it and about explaining his recent need for it to other people.  He takes the cane almost everywhere. One exception is his beloved University of Wisconsin Arboretum where he is the curator of the gardens; there he prefers to carry a six-foot walking stick, made from a discarded tree branch.  Also he does not use the cane when walking around the house or when working in our own yard and garden.  He may think the cane would be more hindrance than help in those situations.

As therapists, Ed’s selective use of the cane points to the need to understand and work with the client to think through everyday places and occupations for which the use of an adaptive device is being considered.  It’s likely the device will work well in some situations and not so well in others.  Having a cane that is the right length, and learning the mechanics of walking with the cane, are fundamentals of issuing a cane.  But taking into consideration priorities, nuances of daily routines, and practicalities of daily life is likely equally important.

I have been struck by the strong symbol of disability that the cane represents.  I say this because Ed and I, immediately upon venturing out with the cane for the first time, were met with people holding doors open for us, giving us priority in lines, at one time bringing a chair over for Ed to sit on while we were waiting at some event.  Even the security people at airports offer him assistance.  How does one hit a happy balance with such solicitous behavior?  It’s very thoughtful in some circumstances, but it can border on over-helpfulness and a sense of being hovered over in others.  I had thought of cane-use as quite a minor adaptation in terms of its visibility in social situations.  Not so.

As I write this, Ed is off at the moment on a group tour of gardens in England.  For the first time (he goes on these intensive garden tours every other year), we both worried some about whether or not he’d be able to manage the airports and extensive garden walks.  But I got an e-mail yesterday saying he was doing fine, others gladly give him an arm for support if needed and he sits out some of the rough terrain at some stops.  And, yes, he has his cane along.

One of my masters degree students did an ethnographic study on women who were new cane users.  One theme of meaning from the interviews was the problem of where to put the cane — especially when in places such as restaurants, theaters, concerts, church, and meetings.  And sure enough, this theme holds true for Ed.  We are always concerned about making sure the cane is nearby but not where someone might trip over it. Also, for the women in the study, very often the cane had a specific place in the house where it was kept when not in use, so they would always know where it was.  Ed  keeps his cane propped up in a corner of the front entryway, tucked back in next to the chest of drawers.

Where to put the cane while on the coach traveling to gardens in England must have been a topic of some conversation at the start of the tour.  A little “hovering” is not a bad thing.  I hope the tour continues to go well!

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