“Something Beautiful…”

While searching for articles concerning nursing home volunteers, I came across this article from Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. It spoke to me, particularly in light of the pandemic. As I was reading, I felt a loving, warm embrace as Jeanette shares her experiences as a volunteer. In these days, I need, and I think, we may all need to feel that warm embrace. I hope you enjoy reading this article as much as I did.

“Reproduced with permission of American Society on Aging, from Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging, Jeanette Reid, 23, 4, 2000 Reasons to Grow Old: Meaning in Later Life (Winter 1999-2000), pp. 51-55 permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.”

“Living Creatively in a Nursing Home”

by Jeanette Reid

A volunteer gains an education in resilience, reflections, and courage.

For four or five years, shortly after leaving the teaching profession, I volunteered weekly in a nursing home. My initial motivation was to aid my mother-in-law, an independent yet shy and unassertive woman, as she reluctantly made the transition from solitary to communal living. It was my thought that as I became familiar with the programs, staff, and residents of the home, I could help to ease her into her new surroundings, encourage her participation, and develop a common ground for discussion about her new life. All of this did take place over the first few months, but, several years later, I was still volunteering. Today, though it has been five years since I lived in that area, those experiences continue to enrich my life.

My “assignment” was to visit with residents in their rooms, talk with them, read, write letters – whatever a friend or relative might do. I soon learned, however, that my main job was to listen. Since I was not family, for whom they tended to be either cheery and less than honest or negative and full of blame, or staff, on whose goodwill they were dependent for daily comforts and attentions, I was a safe and available receptor for anxieties and doubts, unresolved issues, secret delights and wishes, and the retelling of life events that had surfaced so clearly in these later, less active years. It was my privilege to get to know these people in a personal way, to hear about their lives, their wisdom and their foibles. For me, it was an education in resilience, reflection, courage, the art of living in the moment, and the amazing variety of expression to be found in the human spirit. It is a gift to my growth that continues to pay interest.

The Engineer

Mr. Kraft was ninety-three and legally blind, but it took me some time to realize either of those things because he was so sociable and quick-witted. Every morning he walked down the hall and knocked on my mother-in-law’s door to escort her to breakfast. This practice was in keeping with his gentlemanly manner, but also practical; the two were among the few early risers who liked to have breakfast in the dining room, and my mother-in-law could see well enough to push the right elevator button. They had struck up a friendship, Mr. Kraft said, “because Helen has such a good sense of humor; she always laughs at my jokes.” He had a great store of jokes, which he told well. One day I arrived earlier than usual and sat with them in the dining room. They kidded each other throughout breakfast in such a friendly and amusing way that I felt my day was lighter and off to a good start.

I always visited Mr. Kraft in his room for the better part of an hour. He had so much he wanted to tell me. Since not being able to see well enough to read or watch television, he had become an avid listener to books on tape. He had a background in civil engineering, and his career had been in some aspect of public works. He had a genuinely inquiring mind. The Library for the Blind sent him a box of tapes every week – astronomy, new physics, biblical studies, anthropology, recent theories or discoveries in a range of fields. He was eager to talk about them. “You won’t believe what I just found out !” was his usual greeting, followed by the description of some detail that was new and remarkable to him. “Now what do you think of that? Isn’t that just amazing!”

He set himself the task of studying the Old Testament on tape, a book a week. Genesis particularly fascinated him, and he reordered it numerous times. He even began memorizing long biblical passages that appealed to him and some of the lesser known creeds, wanting to have them in mind so he could call them up whenever he liked. Science and religion and human endeavor and development were areas in which he found exciting parallels and cross-references. Before each visit ended, we would go over the order blank for next week’s tapes, me reading the titles as he struggled to narrow down his requests to the required limit of six.

In the corner of his room on two card tables he had set up a model railroad, a remnant, he said, of the one he had for years in his home. he could use it only with assistance, when someone came to visit him, Mr. Kraft had a remarkable number of visitors, mostly younger colleagues, church members, former neighbors or their now-grown children, with whom he got along famously and whom he often seemed to be mentoring. Before they left, there was always a train session; he could still see the movement of the cars and loved the sounds. Peering down through his thick glasses, he would assume the role of engineer, directing the pushing of the buttons.

The last time I saw Mr. Kraft was a Christmas day when my family went down to visit my mother-in-law, who by then had had a stroke and was no longer mobile or able to talk. Mr. Kraft came by the room to visit, as he had continued to do every day, and was delighted to find us all assembled. After talking a bit to everyone, he turned to my five-year-old grandson, who was standing on the edges, and said “Do you like trains with whistles?” “Sure,” Reid brightened. “Well,” said Mr. Kraft, “come on down to my room for a few minutes. I’ll tell you how to push the buttons and we’ll get her going.”

Rage

Miss Blanchard was the angriest woman I have ever encountered. She had come to the home directly from the hospital where she had undergone major, unexpected surgery that had left her in great discomfort and in a wheelchair. Her career had been in radio broadcasting, where she had become the business manager of a metropolitan radio station at a time when such positions were rare for women, and she continued to work long past the usual retirement age. I heard that she ran a very tight ship and was both feared and respected.

At the retirement home she was enraged – enraged at her body for its infirmity, enraged at the wheelchair on which she had to depend, and enraged at the doctors, nurses, and staff who “no idea what they were doing” and could do “nothing right.” Every offer of assistance, encouragement, or diversion was met with scathing and sarcastic remarks. I was quite daunted by her manner – only sheer determination pushed me through her door each week – but I was also challenged and somewhat fascinated by the sight of this highly intelligent and articulate woman caught up in a prolonged tantrum on the level of grand opera or Greek tragedy.

After Miss Blanchard had been a resident for a month or two, I had to go away for several weeks. On return, I walked into the lounge serving her area, a bright fourth-floor room with large windows that looked out toward the harbor. To my surprise, I saw Miss Blanchard, who had staunchly refused to even go in there before, sitting near the window and staring intently upward.

“Look!” she commanded, barely glancing to see who I was. “Do you see him?” I peered up at the overcast sky.

“No, no, not there. Look this way,” she said impatiently, jabbing a finger to the upper right. I saw a seagull gliding through the sky.

“Now watch,” she said, “he’ll go that way.” And though he had received her orders, he did! Miss Blanchard looked very pleased.

“I’ve been watching them for days,” she said. “I could tell what he would do by the way that flag is blowing. Look, here come two more – and a third from the other direction. See what happens? It’s like a ballet, isn’t it? Very precise. Very scientific, the aerodynamics. I’ve been reading about it.” Her eyes were a s bright as those of a child seeing her first fireworks, and at every swoop of a gull her fact lit up with a smile. Her engagement with the birds was total – and contagious. I have always liked watching the gulls myself, but had never studied them from a height that put them often on eye level.

Over the next few months, I learned a lot about birds from Miss Blanchard. She continued her study of them with the same energy and intensity she had put into her career – observing, reading, calling up numerous experts and birdwatchers. I also learned a lot about human nature from her: that a keen and observant mind can be a curse or a blessing; that energy has to flow toward something, something that ignites a spark, often in a most unexpected way; and that the possibilities of engagement and connection with life are never exhausted – even when they look most hopeless.

Gardening

Mrs. Harrington had a large terrarium in her room with all kinds of mosses and interesting plants with varicolored leaves, which she enjoyed talking about. I tape-recorded on of our conversations:

When my husband died about fifteen years ago, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself. He had been sick for quite a while, so I had dropped out of most my activities. My main source of enjoyment was my garden, which I could tend to and yet be close to the house if he needed me. Well, after he died, I found myself spending more and more time in the garden. People called me, asking me to do this or that, and, of course, I no longer had to stay home, but I realized it was what I wanted to do, work with my plants, feed and prune them, move them around a bit to see if they’d grow better. I was in my mid-70s then. A young man came to help me a couple of times a week, but mostly I was out there by myself with the birds and the earthworms and all those colors and fragrances, and I was happy. I worked late into the evening when things had cooled off. I even got a couple of spot lights put out back so I wouldn’t have to stop till I wanted to. The neighbors must have thought I was crazy, out there gardening in the dark, but I didn’t care.

Of course, when I moved in here I had to give it all up. I had a couple of falls, and I knew it was time to leave the house. The hardest thing was leaving that garden. Some people have trouble leaving their furniture, their mementos or pictures and books. I had long since lost interest in most of that. But my garden had become my life. Well, don’t you know, the day after I moved in , my niece showed up with a terrarium. People had wanted to give me potted plants to cheer me up, and of course we have a lovely garden in the courtyard here that is tended by professionals. Those things were nice, but where did I come into it, just to sit and look?

The terrarium was perfect. I’d never had one before, so it took some trial and error, but I’ve become a gardener again. Some people think terrariums are difficult and troublesome, but I don’t. They just need attention like all growing things; they just need someone to watch the temperature and humidity, to look for signs of trouble, to encourage them with plenty of food or a new location if they get droopy, to talk to them. Oh, yes, I talk to them. I always have talked to my plants. Now you know I’m crazy, don’t you?

Well, that first terrarium got just too small for all I wanted to do, and so did the second. Now this one I have now is as big as I’ll go, and it’s just fine. People stop by to see it all the time, ask me questions about this or that plant, and commiserate when one dies. I think it gives them something to notice and be curious about. But it gives me a lot more than that. Who ever thought I could have a garden right here in my own room?

A Center of Quiet

I always enjoyed my visits with Father Jameson, quiet center in the midst of an active day. His room was comfortable, but sparely furnished – a bed and chest of dark wood, a faded Persian rug, a wing chair by the window, where he spent most of his day napping or reflecting. An air of serenity encompassed him, a peacefulness that, coupled with his gentle sense of humor and amusement toward life, made him very good company. he was old and slow moving, no longer able to read, but his keen mind, both youthful and wise, took in everything and was surprised by very little. He had seen it all.

Father Jameson received a lot of mail from all over the world. He had enjoyed a lifetime of service in the Episcopal church. People wrote to him from many places – South Africa, England, Japan – updating him on what was happening in their area or situation, often asking for his input and advice. Newsletters arrived, publications from various dioceses or committees. He would have me read the articles that interested him, often filling me in on the particular person or project with amusing anecdotes and wry comments. Listening to the letters, he would nod in approval or raise his eyebrows and shake his head in dismay. Some we would put aside to be answered when the young cleric came to assist him. The rest would be waved into the trash can.

I was amused by these numerous letters, the questions and crises that came his way – as though he were mentoring to the world. He did what he could. Yet the world’s hustle and bustle, its urgencies and perplexities seemed so remote from this quiet, unassuming man whose real attention appeared to lie in some deep interior or far-off place of peace and contemplation.

New Life

My mother-in-law went into the nursing home most reluctantly. She had suffered a small stroke that had left her rather vague and confused. She could not understand why she had to make this move when she was perfectly happy in her own small apartment. For a couple of weeks she as quite disoriented as though she were living in a dream world where the happenings made no sense.

As familiarity slowly eased this state and she recognized the daily routines, she became depressed. “What good am I?” she would ask. “I’ve worked hard all my life – at home, in the church, helping out my neighbors – and now I’m no use to anyone.” She also felt that she wasn’t “like these people here” and that the other residents didn’t like her. But her depression was balanced by a gentle sense of humor she had always expressed about life and about her self and a natural appreciation for people who did their job well. I could see that unlike some of the more irritable and demanding residents, she got on quite well with the staff, and they would often stop by her room on the way down the hall for a word or two.

Then my mother-in-law was given a new dinner partner, a delightful, independent woman who was not interested in what she called the “boring social graces” that seemed so important to the more traditional residents. My mother-in-law and this woman talking and laughing together got the attention of a couple of other residents who were less staid and eager for more liveliness. Soon they were sitting near each other at breakfast, where seats were unassigned – The Breakfast Club they called it – and at musical events and activities planned by the home. I was amazed. For the first time in the thirty-five years that I had known my mother-in-law, I saw this painfully shy, self-conscious, and work-oriented woman was laughing and bantering with friends in a relaxed way.

Once she got beyond her initial feelings of alienation, she also found work to do. There were older or more infirm residents whom she could visit, read to, tell about recent happenings. She had been a hospital volunteer for a number of years, and she was comfortable in this role and felt she was doing a needed service. I think her years in the home opened up a whole new area of life for her. I know that we became closer than we had ever been. Up until that time, our relationship had been one of polite but distant regard. When she died in 1994, I felt I had know a friend, a woman of courage, humility, and steadiness who became a model for me in her ability to adapt and blossom under unexpected and diminished circumstances.

In my work with retirement residents, I observed a variety of ways in which individuals found meaning in later life. Some maintained old interests in a new way, other enjoyed the time and freedom to develop latent creativity and new pursuits. Some discovered that the comfortable size of their new community freed them to reach out in friendship and service, others found that removal from the bustle of life offered a welcomed time for mediation and reflection. Overall, it seems important to give resident time to work their way through a period of transition, to offer them a range of opportunities while allowing them to discover their own needs and inclinations, and to encourage and support their choices. ~

 “Reproduced with permission of American Society on Aging, from Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging, Jeanette Reid, 23, 4, 2000 Reasons to Grow Old: Meaning in Later Life (Winter 1999-2000), pp. 51-55 permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.” 

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