In 1991, I helped my mother move into a skilled nursing center in Madison, Wisconsin. My brother and I had scoped out the various care facilities in the city and chosen a Methodist-run facility located downtown near the capitol square. As a Methodist herself, my mother liked being able to say that she was moving to the “Methodist place.” That, plus being able to say she was moving to be “closer to Betty,” helped her get through the anxiety of the relocation not only from her much loved home of almost 60 years but also from her longtime friends and her familiar routines of everyday living. .
At the time, I was a fairly new faculty member at the University and I was steeped in the teaching and research of people’s everyday occupational lives. My specialty within occupational therapy was gerontology. I knew reams of information and theories about being elderly in our culture. I attended and presented at annual conferences of the gerontological society, subscribed to and published in gerontology journals, taught a seminar on aging, and was carrying out research on family care giving for elders in the community. I knew the literature on relocation and institutional living like the back of my hand. And I was determined to make all this expertise available to my mother during the time of the move.
Well . . .
My expertise in gerontology told me that when people first move into a care facility, it is helpful and comforting for them to have familiar objects from home with them. It is an important way to help them feel “at home” in an institutional setting. On the day of the actual move, my mother took only a suitcase of clothes and one tiny framed photograph of her with my father, taken on their honeymoon.
Sometime, during the days that followed the move, I suggested bringing a few more items from home — to “personalize” her space. In particular, I thought of the chair she always sat on in the living room. That chair had become, in recent years, a sort of command station for her — a place to keep her knitting basket, to see the view out the window, to be close to the telephone, and from which to watch TV.
Her response to my suggestion totally surprised me. She had absolutely no wish to do this. Simply, “No.” I, with all my book learning, was taken aback. This was not what I expected her to say. I fully expected my mother to think my suggestions were good (even wonderful!) and to be eager for me to carry them out.
This exchange between my mother and me demonstrates what I would call an example of dis-confirming data, i.e., data that do not agree with current theory or our own assumptions. Often, when faced with narratives that do not fit what we already think the data mean, we react with fear that the dis-confirming data somehow negate and weaken the themes we see emerging during our analyses. I would argue that instead of casting doubt on the original emerging themes, the evidence-to-the-contrary offers us deeper and richer understandings than would be present in their absence. We need these dis-confirming data.
In looking back on those first days in the nursing facility, I see now how much my mother’s response was in keeping with her life and values. To begin to break apart her longtime home by taking out pieces of furniture, etc., would, in its own way, violate the home she had shared with my father since before I was born. I believe she wanted the context of her “home” to remain as it was. Home would always be the house in Baraboo. Now she had moved on to a new phase of her life in a different place. She accepted this. She was “closer to Betty.”
How much richer for me to be able to grasp new complexities of the process of relocation to an institutional setting than if my mother had accepted my suggestions. Her wish not to bring belongings to the new place was her way of adapting to this life change. We dropped the subject and I never raised it again.
Dis-confirming data are like gifts to the researcher. They are directives to us to keep thinking, to go deeper, we are not “there” yet. Dis-confirming data are not to be shunned, ignored, avoided or feared. They are to be celebrated. They are there to help us along our journey toward new understandings and meanings.
(P.S. I have the tiny framed photograph, still.)
Rowles, G. D. (1981). The surveillance zone as meaningful space for the aged. The Gerontologist, 21, 304-311.