Friday, October 4, 2013

"Hello, Young Lady, I’m Still in Here!"

To be honest, I was dreading working in the nursing home—just like every other student in my class was, I suppose. I had visions, well...nightmares, of awful smells, sights, and scenarios that we would encounter. My greatest fear was that some grumpy little old man would poop inside the whirlpool while I was bathing him. Somehow I was always by myself in this nightmare, and all of my classmates were outside knocking on the door, waiting in line with their little old people, wondering what in the heck was taking me so long. Meanwhile, I was inside panicking, trying not to throw up while I got Gramps out of the brown swirling water. Next, I imagined myself with gloves up to my armpits, scrubbing poop off the sides of the whirlpool—and off Grandpa—before I put him back into the tub to start all over again. Fortunately, for me (and Gramps) my nightmare did not come true.

Our first day of clinicals in the nursing home was one that I will never forget. In some ways it was just as I expected it to be: full of nasty smells, CNAs that didn’t want us following them around, and the overwhelming sense that I had no idea what I was doing. It was like I’d never read the book at all. And even though I care for Kenny every day, suddenly I felt unprepared to care for these elderly residents. I couldn’t even remember how to make up a bed! And by break time, I wanted to go into the bathroom and cry. I felt so sorry for these little old people and I was sure I wasn’t up to the task. But all morning long I just kept whispering to myself, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you and you’ll be fine.” And I was.

By about 10 o’clock that first morning, I began taking the time to look into each little old pair of eyes. When I did, I saw Mamaw, Laddley, Mama, Daddy, my sweet Kenny, even myself…. I felt sad inside because so many of the residents looked lonely and depressed. So I decided that they would feel loved—at least while I was there. I made it a point to look into their faces and speak to them with kindness and respect. After all, they are the same people they were 50, 60, or 70 years ago, just older.

I don’t know why it came as a surprise to me that many of these little old people had a sense of humor. I remember being in the restorative therapy room one day with a thin little white-haired man who pretended like he was going to throw me the ball when I wasn’t ready. When I flinched, he got such a kick out of it that he chuckled out loud. This sweet little old man reminded me so much of my dad that I drove 85 miles to see my parents that night. Once I got there, I couldn’t stop hugging my dad.

One day I had to clear out a resident’s closet and take his things to his new room. I had assisted an aide with this man a few days before, and I thought he couldn’t talk because he’d never said one word. But low and behold, when I asked him how his weekend had been, he smiled and nodded and said, “Not too bad… not too bad.” Then it dawned on me that more of them could probably talk if I would just take the time to speak—and listen—to them.

Before we actually began our rotation at the nursing home, I was so worried about me. I wondered how I would be able to tolerate the awful smells, how I would handle having to clean up someone’s vomit or diarrhea, and what I would do if one of the residents (or CNAs) was hateful and mean to me. But in the end, it wasn’t about me at all; it was about a chemistry teacher, a WWII veteran, a preacher, a hurricane victim, a singer, a banker.... They were young and vibrant once. They lived life; they laughed and teased; they were star athletes; they held their newborn babies in their arms; they kissed their brides; and then they grew old. I’m thankful for the experiences I had over the past few weeks. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.