There are thousands of people like Carter Williams out there, people who change people’s lives for the better, but most of us never have heard of. We know and pay attention to the deaths of a John Lewis or RBG, as we should, but folks like Williams pass on and get little attention, unless one morning you happen to stumble on their obituary because you like reading obituaries because they tell you about people’s lives. That is what happened to me today. Yesterday, I didn’t know the name Carter Williams, today I do.
Carter Williams was a geriatric social worker, who was disturbed by the use of restraints on old people in nursing homes. People with dementia or even at risk of falling were routinely strapped to beds, chairs and gurney for hours, days, and years as their quality of life quickly diminished and their lives slowly dwindled. The Washington Post writes that
[Williams] helped watchdog groups such as the National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, which advocated changing the basic mission of nursing homes.
Instead of a model of clinical medical care with fixed timetables, schedules and procedures, they championed a more flexible model aimed at providing a meaningful and varied quality of life to residents. This included opportunities to bathe and have meals on their own schedules, and the freedom not to be tied down in a bed or wheelchair.
She founded the Pioneer Network, a national organization which, with the federal government, works to change nursing home culture and support individualized care. And she was consultant to a panel working on nursing home assessments for the 1987 Nursing Home Reform Act, which effectively prohibited the use of physical restraints on nursing home patients.
While she was recognized in the field of geriatrics and by the Virginia State Legislature, her work was under the radar, but it was important work. It helped millions of people, not just old folks in nursing homes, but their families who objected to the treatment of their parents but did not know what to do or felt over-matched by the system.
Ms. Williams saw a wrong and worked to right it, and while doing so she did not seek attention or run to an audience for applause. She didn’t look for reward or recognition. She started her advocacy in the late Sixties or early 70s and fought for more than a decade, until 1987 to see a federal ban on restraints in nursing homes, and then she spent decades making sure that the feds, states, and nursing homes were abiding by the law. She knew that change comes through patience and struggle, and that she could not give up.
I didn’t know Carter Williams so I can’t say that she was an extraordinary person. She might have been, or she might have been like most people who get fixated on a problem, a person like you or me who just couldn’t let that one go. On paper, even with her education, she was quite ordinary, someone like us.
She came from a modest background: She grew up in San Antonio. She went to college in the 1940s, first at Wellesley, a women’s college, and then a school of social work, which at the time were directed towards women. She went into one of the fields open to women at the time. None of this made her exceptional or a pioneer.
She went to work and saw a problem and worked to fix it. Again, thousands of people do this, work to help the people around us. This is not extraordinary. She fought hard and made change. Again, this is something many people do.
I write this not to diminish Williams’ life work but to point out that what everyday people like you and me do is important and that there are many people like that among us, very good people with good hearts who do good things. Every day we read about the Donald Trumps, Brad Parscales, Mitch McConnells, the Build the Wall crooks, and My Pillow Guys…and, yeah, those people exist and do great damage, but they are not America. If they were, this country would be far far far more fucked up than it is. That we are kept from sliding into the abyss is because everyday people like Carter Williams say enough and decide to act, or they simply work quietly to make the world a better place.
Thanks, Ms Williams for acting on your decency and showing that it is the everyday people among us that give goodness to this country and world.