My childhood was spent growing up overseas, away from the support of extended family. This meant that on the annual trip back to New Zealand, precious time was spent with family, particularly grandparents. On one occasion my grandfather sailed his yacht to the Solomon Islands where my family lived, and one of my favorite memories is walking down to where his small one man yacht was moored, to share porridge and stories together.
As a newly graduated doctor, my first job was in a geriatrics ward. I knew such experience would be vital in my career as a GP, and I was overwhelmed with the demands of that job. Elderly people in hospital often have multiple medical conditions, some of which are in crisis, hence their admission. However, the very medicines we as doctors are trained to use become the cause of many undesired and harmful effects and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to these. So the paradox in medical care of the elderly is that their illness is complex, and the medicines to treat them are often harmful. I learned much from that experience, and a particular patient interaction gave germination to one of the stories in my book 'This Old Stick'.
During my career as a GP, my practice demographic became naturally loaded with elderly people. I work in Tauranga, the ‘retirement capital of New Zealand’, and older people tend to seek continuity with their doctor; I have been with my current practice since 1999.
My appreciation for the stories of the elderly around me was deepened substantially after 10 years in general practice by two patients. They were very different people, as were their stories, apart from the fact that they both started with the second world war. As these two patients came to trust me and my genuine interest in their lives, they slowly opened up to me. Their revelations of old photos and threadbare lives uncovered richness I did not know how to put a value on, except that I wanted more.
That was the genesis for 'This Old Stick'. More importantly, since that time, I have learned that, in my attempts to care for patients, I need to blow the mist gently off the promising sparkling sea of my older patients. Sometimes, words of encouragement are needed, often silence and an empathic smile will do.