what we can’t do








I was at TED Global last week, and I gave a talk at TED U. (That’s the stage where a few attendees are selected to speak.) I talked about something I hardly ever mention on this blog – my dad, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The video went up on the web today. It’s intensely personal for me, but it now has 13,000 views. So it’s probably time to talk about it here, too.

Caring for my dad is an awful lot like aid work. I stare down a heartbreaking problem that’s far too big and complicated for me to solve. I divorce my emotions, quantify the situation, identity the things I can help with and learn to live with the pain of the rest.

My dad was diagnosed in 2005; I’d already been working in aid for seven years by then. I was ready.

For my dad, I hired an aide to keep him company when everyone else was at work. Then a night aide so he never had to be alone. My mom and I found soft clothes for him that he liked to wear (Dad was a college professor; he still doesn’t approve of jeans or t-shirts). I hired a massage therapist to come weekly. Last week, I got him a special apron that has zippers and Velcro and buttons to give him something to do with his hands. (He likes it, I hate it. It makes him look sick. As sick as he actually is.)

None of it really makes a difference. I love my dad and he is still dying of the disease he feared most.

Learning to live with the pain of what I can’t do is the hard part – in aid work, and with my dad. I always want to do more. And there are always limits to what I can personally give, and what can actually be done.

In my work, it’s all the people who don’t get helped. The woman who told me a doctor killed her baby. The people who aren’t in our target districts. The people who are in our target districts and get missed anyway. There is much more pain in this world than anything I can do to help, just like an activity apron and a massage aren’t going to make my dad get better.

I figure out the shape of the problem. I do what I can. I hurt like hell and try not to think about the rest. At home and at work. It’s life, right?

As long as I am getting personal, that’s a picture of my dad and my son, from a few years back

TED India

TED India splash page

Those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter may not know that I am attending TED India as a fellow next week. TED is a conference devoted to problem-solving and unexpected solutions; the theme for next week in Mysore is “The Future Beckons.”

I’m pretty excited about the conference, and I am hoping to learn a lot. But I’ve never been to a conference like this before; I’ve only ever been to technical conferences like the APHA annual meeting, or Global Health Council. Inspiration and ideas are a whole new deal for me. So, since my readers are some of the smartest people I know – how do I get the most out of this? What kind of sessions do you think I should attend? Should I write down what I learned every night? Have any of you been to TED? Anything I should prepare for?