I Hate Epics.

You know, those movies that seem to go on forever…Apocalypse Now, Gladiator, Gone With the Wind. Wake me up when it’s over.

Funny thing is, that’s what I’ve been telling people for years. Then when I thought about it, two of my favorite movies are epics.

The first one is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ok, I admit it, this movie appears to be nothing but people in ninja costumes flying around kicking each other. But…well, I could try to convince you otherwise, but it doesn’t have much to do with nursing homes, so I’ll save that for another time.

The second one is a behemoth of a movie from 1990 (before some of you young’uns were born) called Dances with Wolves. This Kevin Costner film won Best Picture, and clocks in at somewhere between 3 and 4 hours, depending on whether you watch the original or the director’s cut.

People who know me probably wouldn’t expect me to like Dances With Wolves. I fact I was even surprised I like it! But after some thought, I figured out why: I love Dances With Wolves because the whole movie is about communication. And those of you who have read my previous writings know, I’m a sucker for good communication.

The movie starts with Lieutenant John Dunbar (played by Kevin Costner, who directed the movie), struggling to communicate with his fellow soldiers. Later, alone on the Great Plains, he attempts with limited success to communicate with his only companion, a stray wolf. Eventually, his inability to communicate with U.S. Army Officers leads to an abusive interrogation and his eventual arrest for treason.

But in between all of this, he and the Lakota Indians have much more than a language barrier – they are both fearful of each other and have been given false information. This would have certainly led to Dunbar’s death, had it not been for one word. (Anyone remember the word?)


In English, a buffalo! For me, this is the most dramatic scene of the movie. Dunbar uses “Charades” I guess you could say, to elicit this single word that bridges the gap between them.

He later remarks:

“Nothing I’ve been told about these people is correct! They are not beggars and thieves or the bogeymen they’ve been made out to be. They are polite guests with a familiar humor I enjoy. Real communication is slow, however…Most progress has been built on failure rather than success. One thing is clear. There are no buffalo. It weighs heavy on their minds.”

Wow, and all that started with one word, Tatanka. From this one word, they begin the process of communication, and Dunbar learns of their fear over the disappearance of the beast. (It is believed that 30-60 million bison once roamed the Great Plains. By the end of the 19th century, less that 1,000 survived.) Dunbar transcends from a target of suspicion and aggression, to a friend, and eventually, one who is made a member of the tribe and given a Lakota name which translates to Dances With Wolves.

I doubt there is another movie out there that more accurately describes the miracle of communication. You should watch it this weekend!

You know, as I reread that quotation above, I realize that it could just as easily be applied to our friends at the nursing home. (Ok, except the part about the buffalo). There is a lot of false information about people in nursing homes. But if we really learn to communicate with them, we might be apt to remark:

“Nothing I’ve been told about these people is correct! They are not bitter, crabby old men and women. They are loving, funny, appreciative, sincere, and sympathetic …”

I’ll say it again, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my 12 years of experience at nursing homes, and 38 years experience on this planet: communication is everything. It is inseparable from our very identity as human beings. It is secondary only to breathing. When it succeeds, communication moves mountains, conquers fears, and gives us hope. There are dozens of ads for fancy new drugs on TV these days, but true communication with our elders in nursing homes will change their lives more than any of these pills.

But communication isn’t just something you learn without effort — that’s just talking — communication is so much more. It needs to be practiced. It involves deep listening and understanding, and quite often, humility. It’s an act of giving.

Those of you who have seen me “in action” at the nursing home have remarked that I have a talent for communicating with the elderly. And perhaps I do, but it has only become apparent after years of practice. And, I must admit that I have far to go in effectively communicating in my personal life. It takes a child only a year or two to learn how to talk. We spend the rest of our lives learning how to communicate.