New ways to communicate

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For being basically in a lockdown, it seemed ironic that I couldn’t connect with Barbara Fleischer. I called her at her Maryland home Sunday morning, but nobody answered. She called me back on my cell, however, I was in the midst of moving furniture. She suggested I try again at 3:30 p.m. I buzzed at 4 and left another message. You get the picture – you’ve surely played telephone tag.

For “supposedly” being hunkered down, it’s not as easy to catch up with people as you might think.

Making connections is so important at this time. As I learned when I finally got Barbara, who I have never met, on the line, she and her husband, Charlie, had been out connecting with people on a neighborhood walk … at acceptable distances.

Rich Fleischer, who has worked at the Beacon since graduating from URI nearly 48 years ago, clued me in to what his brother and sister-in-law were doing to keep in touch with their six grandchildren between the ages of 4 and 8. What has been especially difficult is keeping their distance from two of the kids who live just a minute’s drive away and are accustomed to visits and visiting.

Barbara, who operates a psychotherapy and geriatric practice with a staff of eight, designed some puzzles for the two nearest grandchildren, leaving them in the mailbox. The kids were watching and were thrilled to get the puzzles. But Barbara’s intent was more than providing a diversion for the kids. This was also a lesson requiring them to complete the puzzles by the end of the day.

“Both parents are working at home and they have two little kids. We can’t help out,” Barbara said voicing her frustration. Before the threat of the virus, Barbara and Charlie would pick up the kids at school and often prepare dinner for them.

With that gone, the puzzles became a way of engaging the kids.

That evening, Barbara and Charlie checked up on their assignments and rewarded the two grandchildren with a dollar each – also left in the mailbox. Their granddaughter, the youngest of the six, forgot the protocol and rushed out to give Barbara a hug. They repeated the lesson the following day. By the third day, it was too much like work … or maybe school.

Not being face-to-face gets more and more challenging every day. That surely is one of the obstacles teachers across the state face this week as the April break in March comes to a close and there’s no guess as to when schools will reopen.

Barbara said her staff can no longer visit their patients and must work with them over the telephone.

“The whole practice is about relationships,” she said. Barbara does five one-hour sessions daily over the phone, which she finds draining. She is working with people with high levels of anxiety that is all the more acute now. She urges her clients to “think of today,” and while they shouldn’t be shaking hands and hugging one another, she emphasized that they look into other people’s eyes – even complete strangers as they are at the market or out for a walk – and say hello.

Back on the home front, she and the grandchildren played tick-tack-toe on the front door window. Using masking tape, she created a grid and then separated by the glass they played the game with pieces of tape. The next step to connecting was Zoom.

This weekend was the first time Barbara tried Zoom. She needed a little help to get it set up, but once she had mastered it, she was able to bring all six grandchildren together. She picked American Indians as a topic for discussion starting off with questions such as how long have they lived here and what’s the name of the houses they built. She didn’t get into how the Indians were treated and what became of most of them. She didn’t want to go there. After about an hour of talking about Indians and imagining what their lives were like, the eldest asked, “when are we going to be finished?”

Barbara knew she was getting the hook and declared it was a good time to stop.

Hendricken will use Zoom for some of its classes as I imagine other schools will. Naturally, it can’t replace the teacher who not only is delivering information in a manner to make the lesson engaging, but is also reading his or her students. They pick up on who’s having trouble comprehending or simply could care less. They know their students.

In only a matter of weeks this virus has disrupted our economy, making us realize how interconnected we are and dependent we are on one another. When forced to be separated, even with the multiple means we have to communicate, we are less than complete.

Barbara is working on ways to complete the circle. It’s a challenge we all face.

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