Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Uncomfortable Dinner

Last weekend, after Paul ran a very cold 12.5 mile race, we treated ourselves to a nice pasta dinner out. Our neighbors at the next table were two elderly people and two middle aged people, one of whom was in a motorized chair and, apparently, wearing an adult diaper.

I was sympathetic, imagining this scenario: a middle aged person with a disability who perhaps couldn't completely care for himself, and older parents who could no longer care for him, either.

But on the other hand, my dinner was pretty miserable because the stench of bodily uncleanliness and an adult diaper that needed to be changed overwhelmed my sensitive pregnant nose. It wasn't just me being hypersensitive; Paul admitted later that he noticed the situation, too. (He was seated across the table and does not have a particularly sensitive nose.)

The party next to us were already seated when we arrived at the restaurant and sat to enjoy conversation after eating. We ate our dinner and skipped dessert while I took the kids to the car and Paul waited to pay.

I am sympathetic (and empathetic and concerned about the future of my own family). And certainly this family deserved an evening out at least as much as any other family. But at the same time I had a very uncomfortable time at a nice meal out that I, too, was looking forward to.

I'm comfortable with the way we handled the situation. The girls (thankfully!) did not complain or draw attention to the problem. I buried my nose in Paul's wine glass when necessary (after smearing a bit of menthol chapstick under my nose) and I did not need to excuse myself from the table. Perhaps we should have asked our server if we could move, but that would have felt really rude to me (in fact, writing this now feels rude to me).

But I'm wondering about the ethics of this situation. When we eat out is this sort of situation just a possibility of being out in public? Or do we as individuals have a responsibility to keep our aromas to ourselves? Certainly I've experienced uncomfortably strong perfume, smoke, and bodily aromas in public before (as well as parents who are none too prompt about changing their child's diapers). But there really is a difference, at least for me, between other strong aromas and those associated with bodily waste, at least when it comes to mealtimes.

Thoughts? Or am I just an insensitive jerk for asking?

Edited to add a link to Changing Places. If I can't walk - or stand - on my own, should I not go out in public? That sounds ridiculous, right? But when was the last time you saw a public restroom equipped with a hoist to handle lifting someone who can't lift him or herself? I don't think I have ever seen one.


RobMonroe said...

No advice, just great relief that Ada did not draw great attention to the smell! She is one with a sensitive nose as well...

HiddenChicken said...

I don't think it's our responsibility necessarily to keep our odors to ourselves; however, it is our responsibility (and the responsibility of our caretakers when we are unable to do so ourselves) to keep ourselves clean. Don't feel guilty about feeling the way you feel - I probably would've been miserable, too. I have an insanely strong sense of smell, pregnant or not.

Sarahlynn said...

Rob, and she was closest. My guess is that her time spent in preschools and nurseries has allowed her to become accustomed to certain smells. Your relief is mine because, as we all know, when Ada draws attention to something she does so loudly and without tact!

HiddenChicken, I have a very strong sense of smell, too, which is why I checked with Paul to make sure I wasn't just being hypersensitive.

Anonymous said...

I think that depending on how busy/crowded the restaurant was, you could have asked to be moved. The other family wouldn't have needed to know why--perhaps there was a physical problem with the table (uneven legs or the like) or the temperature was uncomfortable where you were or any of a multitude of other reasons.

That being said, if I had been in your situation, I probably wouldn't have done anything. And if I had asked to be moved, I would feel guilty about it.

Sarahlynn said...

Rebkatz, it was crowded and we waited for our table, but even so I'm glad I didn't ask to be moved. I'm pretty sure this is one of those cases where my discomfort and guilt is cluing me in that I am in the wrong.

Becca, thank you so much for your response. (I don't see it now. Is Blogger being glitchy or did you delete it?)

I can only imagine the difficulty of handling changes in public, *especially* if one can't stand on one's own to do so. I don't think I've ever seen a public restroom equipped to handle that sort of situation.

And yet it's absolutely unfair to suggest that many people with disabilities cannot participate in public life. If there's no way to handle changes in public, isn't that what we're saying?

I want to make sure that the link to Changing Places is visible here, so I will add it to my post.

HiddenChicken said...

See, I disagree - I don't think you're necessarily in the wrong. A bad odor is a bad odor. But how you react is what matters.

People with disabilities shouldn't be expected to stay home - everyone needs to get out. And, yes, it's the caretakers' responsibility to ensure that individual is kept clean. However (and I should've clarified), I can't imagine the logistics involved in doing that. I wouldn't have asked to move, either. And I have to admit, though I can talk a good game about feeling what you feel, I would've felt the same guilt.

Still, I don't necessarily think you're in the wrong. And neither were the individuals at the table nearby. It's a touchy situation all around, and one you (general) rarely think about. I'm glad I read your post.

Sarahlynn said...

Yeah, HiddenChicken, I think that's exactly how I feel.

I think there's no easy/obvious answer here, and it's a situation many of us (who have the ability to do so) avoid thinking about. Because it's uncomfortable.

IrrationalPoint said...

Seems to me that the solution involves having more disabled changing facilities in public places. Lots of baby changing facilities could be swapped for a more accessible option that would allow for older kids or adults to be changed too, even if that involved a compromise solution with no hoist, but with a proper changing station that could hold an adult or older child. As the carer of disabled kids, I've often been out with children between 5-10 years old who used diapers and changing them once we were out was incredibly difficult. The kids could lift their own weight, so a hoist wasn't the issue -- rather that most fold-down baby changing stations won't hold a kid older than a toddler.

Blaming the carers seems a little harsh, since once the person is out in public (and it's unreasonable to say they can't be in public, as you've said), nobody has a lot of control over when changing facilities will be needed. In other words, suppose the carers changed the person before leaving the house. They then went out, and halfway through their meal, became aware that changing was needed, but had no facilities through no fault of their own. Should they have abandoned their dinner, and gone straight home? Should the carers have explained that decision to the disabled adult as "We must leave now because you smell"? Maybe the disabled person is already intensely aware of this issue, and embarrassed by it. Maybe the person wanted to go home to be changed but had no way to communicate this discretely to the carers. It's hard to know, and easy to assume, what might have been going on in their interaction.

When I eat out, it's often because I just don't have the energy to cook that day. Sometimes eating out isn't just a luxury, but also a way of coping with limited energy. In those circumstances, an interrupted dinner might be much more than just not having the treat meal one had been looking forward to. Also hard to know.

In any case, I think you made the right call by not drawing any attention to the issue. Maybe you could try writing to the restaurant and suggesting that they improve their changing facilities, or writing to your city councilor and bringing the issue of changing facilities in public places to their attention.


Sarahlynn said...

Right. I'm embarrassed and a little surprised that I haven't thought or heard about the need for public changing facilities for older kids and adults before now. The need seems obvious. Sure I can usually take my infant out to the car to change her diaper if I need to, but my grandfather? And yet infant/toddler changing stations are everywhere.

I think I added to the confusion in this discussion by identifying with the elderly couple (parents?) and suggesting that perhaps they were too old to care for the middle aged man (son?). As far as I could tell, the man was physically - but not mentally - disabled. I don't know if he needed carers at all, or if he usually takes care of himself.

Regardless, the need for better public changing facilities is now very much on my radar screen.

Anonymous said...

Who pays for the facilities? Will they be required due to the handicapped and disabilities act? We have had restaurants here in California go out of business because they cannot afford to update their facility to meet the requirements. I have no idea how the businesses in your state cope with the federal laws but it kind of sounds like they may not be in compliance if they do not have space for changing an adult.

Sarahlynn said...

I support the ADA.

As far as I know, most of the ADA regulations refer to wheelchair use (e.g. room to pull a wheelchair up to a sink, space and handrails to transfer from a chair to a toilet, etc.). I haven't seen anything about accessible changing facilities in the U.S.