When I first started working in nursing homes, my background and education was in social work. Oh, the plans I had in my head regarding this profession and career. I was going to blaze new paths for the field of social work…I was going to “save the world”…I was going to solve people’s problems and make all of their lives so much better. Initially, I found this “mission” to be a little harder than I had anticipated. Each day I learned that there was quite a bit of knowledge that I needed, that could not be found in any textbook. Much of what I did in the beginning was “trial by fire.”
Just as an aside, you need to know…People who work with elders, especially those precious ones who live in nursing homes, find that it is possible to have a few “favorite” people who are in their care…those individuals who you automatically “connect” with…they need and give just a little extra loving and affection. They may have no family at all. They may have been abused. They may simply be wanting to be loved. For whatever reason, you find that you form a strong bond with these wonderful, old people. The professionalism comes into play in that the “favoritism” is never shown, especially in front of other residents. They are all cared for, loved, and attended to the very same. At least in my buildings they were!!
There was a very tiny African American lady that became a “favorite” of mine. She had no family that I could find, and absolutely no one ever came to visit her. We became fast friends, and would spend time each day singing old Spirituals and visiting. Oh, how she loved to sing! When she saw me coming around the corner of the hallway, her eyes would light up, and she would grin from ear to ear. One day I arrived at work to discover that she had a massive stroke the night before and was in the hospital. She was dying, and they returned her to the only home and family that she knew at that time…us! She had a tube in her nose, made horrible gurgling sounds, body-jerked a lot from fear, and her eyes would dart around…just practically scared to death! I would hold her hand, stroke her hair, and try to give comfort as best I could. However, I knew that I was NOT meeting her needs. It kept me awake for a number of nights. One night, I sat straight up in my bed, with a good plan of action for the next day… and it did NOT come from a textbook. It just felt like the right thing to do.
I walked into her room, took my shoes off, climbed up into the bed with her, put my arm under her, placed her head on my shoulder, and held her just like a mother would a child. I began singing to her very gently. She stopped jerking, her eyes stopped darting around, and for the first time since she had returned from the hospital, her breathing came easy and she slept. I began doing this several times a day, as often as my schedule would allow. She ended up dying in my arms one morning. She finally found the peace that she so needed, and I felt that I had been able to give her a gift in dying, just as she had given me a gift in living.
We mostly overlook those people who have lived long, full lives, and have now outlived everyone they know. For them, there is no one to say to, “remember when we…” There are no shared memories. They are truly and forever alone. I cannot begin to fathom the depth of loneliness that they must feel and face each day. Each one of you reading this post has the ability to give just a little back to these precious elders. How about spending a little time with an old person? Visit with them, take the time to get to know them, and learn from them. You may find a love and friendship that just might mean more to you than you could possibly imagine. And what it means to them is indescribable. Won’t you join me? Just for this week…