When medicine and my dad first collided, it was a shock to him. His attitude toward his medical problems was, well, consumerist. He’d buy surgical services, and the surgeons would fix everything. End of story.
That wasn’t really the way it worked. It was a surprise to Dad — and one he was ill-prepared-for — to learn that he had an important role to play in his recovery. Practically speaking, this meant that getting him to participate in his own physical rehabilitation was a challenge.
Physical therapy generally worked out reasonably well — he couldn’t walk without assistance, and he was willing to work toward walking independently. Occupational therapy infuriated him, though, and to say that he wouldn’t participate is to understate the case . . .. From his perspective, he already knew how to stand, sit, use his hands, etc. — so he was adament that he’d just wait around until all these things worked again.
Medicine doesn’t exactly work like that, though. Nor do bodies. Getting a good post-surgery, post-illness result sometimes (often? always?) requires a lot of effort. Figuring out how to get Dad to do more than wait patiently for his body to return to good health did, too.
My dad’s unwillingness to participate in his physical recovery was worrisome enough. Worse was his disengagement in general — he didn’t want to do anything. He was busy waiting, which left him with little desire to do anything else. He did nothing, all day long, with either fingers or arms.
Jenga came to our rescue. Jenga is a set of small hardwood blocks, maybe one inch by three, not too thick. They’re light in weight, but a little chunky, making them easy to grab. I found a set at Walmart or Target or someplace like that, brought it over to the rehab hospital, opened the box and began stacking the blocks. Dad wanted to know what they were for. “Fun,” I said, adding to the small tower.
Using just a few pieces, I showed him how the game is played: the object is to remove blocks from the tower one by one without causing it to collapse. You take turns to see who can remove the most blocks before the tower falls. He reached for a block with a shaky hand, but three games later his coordination was already improving.
We played Junga through every rehab he went through. Part of the appeal may be that it’s just hard for humans to resist picking up smooth, palm-sized objects. Part of it may be the challenge of keeping the tower intact and the thrill of not knowing when it will tumble. But I suspect that something else also appealed to my dad — the satisfying crash when the whole thing collapses.
I think my dad secretly liked to see that chaos in his way-too-orderly rehab world — like a flash of rebellion in the face of constant restriction. The cycle of the collapse and the rebuilding seemed satisfying to him. Sometimes when reality is too much to deal with, a metaphor will do the trick.
We played Junga on my dad’s bed tables, but used a large cookie sheet with edges to keep the blocks from flying everywhere. It’s a game for almost everyone — the manufacturer recommends it for ages six and up. If rules are an issue, the blocks themselves are almost irresistable, and lend themselves to fine motor play — fun to hold, stir, and stack even if you aren’t keeping score.