Acceptibel Erurr

Here’s a little nugget of inconvenient truth you won’t find nestled in the lyrics of “Frosty the Snowman”-the holiday season is a perverse and twisted test of love and affection.

Agreed? If we truly care about family members and friends who live in distant places, shouldn’t we beg them not to travel at this most dangerous and stress-filled time of year? And shouldn’t they do the same for us?

Instead, we zombie-plod through airports, or pile the family and dog into the ill-prepared sedan with bald summer tires and strike off through malevolent weather systems to prove a devotion that would be best accepted on faith. If we seek a more apt example of mass insanity than Hot Pockets or Justin Bieber, I would suggest holiday travel could be it.

I’m probably just bitter because like millions of other Americans I tried to return to my ancestral roots this past Thanksgiving. I turned on the local news and consulted our respected weather clairvoyant for the best opportunity between storms, then struck out boldly for Canada. I trusted the expert. What could go wrong?

Everything, it turns out. We hit ice, snow, and fog within the first hour-none of which had been prophesied in the forecast. Peering through the freezing windshield, I felt like renowned arctic superhero Ernest Shackleton, except that my dog wasn’t pulling the car. And then I gave up and headed back home, beaten but relieved.

This experience ignited long-smoldering feelings of hostility toward my local meteorologist and his entire ilk. He’s wrong too much, and doesn’t seem to care about it. Not one bit. And why should he? When he’s right, he’s perceived as a mystical genius. When he’s not, he’s just an innocent pawn in a bad suit-at the mercy of a capricious universe.

Worse, there’s no accountability, no system of checks and balances. He just points at the weather map, makes some irresponsible predictions, waves a happy-faced sun over Arizona and freezes a smile until the commercial starts. Then he walks off the set laughing about the joke he just pulled on the trusting populace.

Gary Tetz

Ever wish you worked in a profession like that, where being wrong didn’t matter quite so much? A job where you could say, “Oops,” or “Close enough,” and just walk away? But instead, you chose long-term care, where the well-being of actual people demands the constant quest for perfection. Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems to be embracing a growing tolerance for imprecision, even error.

Clearly, our standards as a precise society that values getting things right are slipping, and it’s certainly not just weatherpeople who are to blame. After much scientific study, most of it conducted while dozing in this chair for the past 20 minutes, I believe I’ve divined the root of the problem. But I have to warn you that the villain is right there in your hand-it’s your smart phone.

This is where it all starts, the slippery slope of lowered expectations and ambivalence to accuracy. How often do you madly tap out a text, see some obvious misspellings, but decide they’re not important enough to fix? And when that action is repeated dozens of times a day by millions just like you, our nation’s literacy is at stake. “Don’t frget to pckk up the kidz frm astronawt training closs,” you text your wife. You know it’s wrong, but you don’t care. She’ll know what you mean.

Nowadays, the problem starts way back in grade school, where I’m told by haggard, exhausted teachers that multitasking children are already learning to text on the sly. Beneath their desks, precious little hands feverishly work the keypads, sending messages they don’t even see, let alone proofread.

Any attempt to teach them a healthy respect for correct language is further undermined by the wizardry of auto-correct, which identifies their mistakes and fixes them on the fly. When Ethan attempts to text “girls have cooties,” but this statement of fundamental beliefs gets auto-corrected to “girls are cute,” his entire third-grade reputation is compromised. This is also when children first learn the dark side of the technology.

Sad to say, this stealth messaging habit never goes away. Soon they’ll be texting blind in coat pockets and purses, through church services and opera performances. And it continues through life right into morning stand-ups at long-term care facilities. Savvy administrators who care about preserving the integrity of the English language should demand their employees keep both hands where they can be seen.

“Don’t frget to pckk up the kidz frm astronawt training closs,” you text your wife. You know it’s wrong, but you don’t care. She’ll know what you mean.

Actually, with everything that’s going on in a hectic nursing home every day, you’d probably find this function to be extremely helpful in your actual professional life.

As we further retreat as a society into our own digital cocoons, technology also spawns passive illiteracy through everyday Web interactions. Our fingers blurt out fragments of search words like Tarzan talking to Jane. Put “Coffee zoo near” in the search box and you’ll instantly get 57 Starbucks within five blocks of your cage. And you didn’t have to form a complete sentence.

There’s really no need to even think for yourself anymore, because Google can read your mind. Type “Mel Gibson” and you’ll probably get the response, “Did you mean ‘loathsome mollusk?’” And you have to reluctantly admit that yes, that is indeed what you meant. Its omniscience is spooky, but usually appreciated.

Actually, with everything that’s going on in a hectic nursing home every day, you’d probably find this function to be extremely helpful in your actual professional life. Just when you’re about to mistakenly hand a med to Mrs. Smith, a voice would page overhead, “Did you mean Mrs. Fitch?” Disaster avoided. But alas, the Google people have not yet chosen to provide this value-added service.

I’ll bet it’s tough to be a long-term care professional in a world of lazy language and acceptable error. The weatherperson just goes home, knowing he or she can guess again tomorrow. But you have to live with and be accountable for your mistakes. Sometimes they even get spotlighted on the Web, with the absence of stars next to them. You can’t risk auto-correct or autopilot. People’s lives are at stake.

It can’t be easy. But I do know this: Your residents are grateful that when you do something for them, you do it right. “Close enough” is never close enough. LTL

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington. Long-Term Living 2011 January;60(1):18-19

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