Friday, April 24, 2009

Finding a Home in Nursing Homes

The summer I turned 19, with aspirations of becoming a physician, I landed a summer job in a nursing home. I was a Nurse's Aide. Back then, there was no licensure or educational requirements. It was all on-the-job-training. And what training it was! (Especially for a teenaged girl…I'll share more about that later!) After college, I again worked as a Nurse's Aide to gather more hands-on experience before entering graduate school for Occupational Therapy (OT) . Finally, I began my OT career specializing in geriatric rehab. Since I have many stories and experiences to share, this will be an ongoing blog series.

Photo found on Flickr

The Experience

Many people shudder at the thought of nursing homes. They conjure sad images of frail people waiting to die and cold, sparsely decorated rooms. Reality often validates these impressions. But only on the surface.

Nursing homes assault your senses. The smell of cleaning products mixed with body fluids. The sight of people napping in wheelchairs. The sound of pain, confusion, and croaks for help. (Once a woman with a stroke-damaged smile pointed and shouted to me, "There! Do you see it?! A lemming!")

However, the hushed, depressive atmosphere and the sense that you are in a place between worlds are false. In truth, nursing homes are much more warm and familiar, fun and alive, and surprisingly comfortable. A visitor can't experience those depths. Let me take you inside.

In a way, working in a nursing home is like caring for 15 infants and toddlers at once. You scramble to:

  • Wipe noses and wash hands.

  • Help them stand at the sink to wash and dress.

  • Soothe one crying in the corner while catching one trying to escape out the door.

  • Mediate squabbles.

  • Help people use the toilet (and wipe).
At mealtime, there are drink boxes to open, food to cut, and fork-fuls to be fed. And there's diapers! You feel like you are constantly changing diapers. Not to mention, there's always the threat that you'll discover the source of the unseemly odor too late, only to find an artist fingerpainting with poop. Naptime seems like a break, but you've got to make sure that each one has what they require to sleep.

But despite the work, most of my days ended with a smile and a warm heart. Why? Because working with adult-sized people is about more than meeting their physical needs. Each one has a lifetime to share and lessons to teach. History lessons (I've met several folks who were born in the 19th century!). Cultural lessons. And plenty of psychology.

A nursing home is a home-- an extended family. And nothing is warmer than that.


One of my beloved "grandmothers" called me into her room one day. Elizabeth knew I was engaged, and had even met Jason once. She gave me a piercing look, set her lips firmly, and declared "You must have something blue with you when you marry." Then she handed me the embroidered handkerchief pictured below.

Months later she suffered a second stroke. The charge nurse phoned me on my day off to let me know that it was "time". I sat with her for several hours, the other aides joined me when they could spare a few minutes. She quietly slipped away later that night.

And I proudly carried "something blue" down the aisle six months later.

Next time, I'll tell you about another time Elizabeth called me into her room....


Linda S. Socha said...

What a lovely post and what an attitude of acceptance...

I worked as a candy stripper in a hospital at a very early age (I lied about my age at 12 and pretended to be 16. You did not have to prove it then.

I managed to go undetected for six months before having to fess up and just admit that I had not been truthful about my age. Those experiences were priceless and probably shaped my growing up..

Alas my motivation was not all about helping others. It was a Catholic Hospital and I was in love with the small chapel. Working 3 days a week allowed me to visit it whenever I wanted to do so.
Look forward to hearing more of your stories

Sarah Hina said...

A wonderful new series, Aine. I'm so glad you're exploring and documenting your memories, in addition to allaying some fears and prejudices. It doesn't surprise me that you've maintained the brightest perspective toward a grinding and sometimes heartbreaking job. It's right there in your blog title, after all. :)

I love that a little bit of Elizabeth lives on with you in that handkerchief, and in your heart. You obviously inspired that familial bond in her, as well as feeling it in yourself.

I just love this series. I already feel my awareness expanded. And you're honoring people whom most outsiders have unfairly resigned to death, or at least a kind of slow decay. That's the greatest gift.

More, please. :)

(and nice mantel clock, too... ;))

Margaret said...

Hi Aine

I've been meaning to visit your blog for a long time. I see now what I've been missing!

It's a wonderful idea to share your experiences with others - to open up a unseen world for us.

We can learn so much from old people. Like you said, they have a lifetime behind them. I'm sure, working in a nursing home (especially at a young age), can enrich one's life.

It's lovely to have a memoire of your Grandmother. Something to treasure.

Thank you for sharing this Aine, look forward to more...

Aniket Thakkar said...

This is such a touching post Aine.

And since I've grown up with my grandparents living together with us... I have heard loads of stuff from them and just love their stories and bits of wisdom.

This is a great series... and am so glad you are sharing your experiences with us.

My respect towards you has increased 10 folds after reading this. Its an honor to have known you in this lifetime.

Karen said...

Aine, I'm so glad to see you delving into these memories. My mother was a nurse who worked with geriatric patients for a while. The stories she would tell were always funny tinged with heartbreak.

Jason recommended "Water for Elephants." If you haven't had time, you should try to read it, as it is set in a nursing home, and I believe realistically depicts some of the squabbles and foibles of the residents.

While I've never worked in a nursing home, we did care for my mother-in-law in her last year. She was nearly 90 and quite a character. I have some funny/heartbreaking stories of my own with her.

I've told my children to just buy me a baby doll and put me in a rocking chair...

I look forward to the further adventures!

Karen said...

Back for another comment: You must have a shiningly sweet nature to have meant so much to Elizabeth. Your being called when it was her time was a recognition of how special you are. Sharing those last moments with someone is a sacred thing.

Chris Eldin said...

You just made my day---ditto Sarah about your perspective and drawing out the positives wherever you can.

This is going to be a beautiful series. I can't wait to learn more about Elizabeth.

Aine said...

Linda~ Thank you. I hadn't thought of it as acceptance before. But I think you are right.

Wow-- 12 is young to experience that raw humanity/mortality. I'm sure it shaped you profoundly. (And I'm impressed by your successful deception--I couldn't have passed for 10 when I was 12...) :P

I was a candy striper, too. (When I was 16 :)) I was lucky enough to get placed in the coveted maternity ward. All we did was make beds and run errands (like taking buckets of placentas down to pathology-- LOL). But we got to stand and gaze at the nursery until the nurses shooed us on...)

Sarah~ You put thoughts into words so beautifully. Thank you for making my efforts sound so special. I hope my blogging accomplishes all that you mentioned!

And there's much more of Elizabeth in my heart. Just wait... ;)

Margaret~ Welcome!! I am happy to see you! I remember thinking that all college students should be required to work in a nursing home for three months. The lessons are priceless. I'll be sharing more about that in future posts. :)

And, to clear up any confusion, Elizabeth is not my real grandmother. I just lovingly refer to many of the residents as my adoptive grandparents. And she was my closest "grandmother", outside of my real "Grammy"!

Aniket~ Wow-- thank you! You make me feel like those "heroes" you see in the news-- I was just doing my job, it really wasn't anything special.... :) I'm excited to share more about my experiences.

Karen~ You know what's coming next, then. You've heard such stories before. :)

I hope the baby doll will work for me, too! :D

And yes, several of the aides had a special connection with Elizabeth-- she was such a special soul.

Chris~ I think Elizabeth will surprise you! :)

Aniket Thakkar said...


But you are a Hero.
We all have the option, but only you chose the path. When I was 19 all I cared was Laptop and bike and I-Pod.

And I respect people who in turn show respect to the elderly. Living with my grad-parents has made me so. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

You opened my eyes a bit. I would never have the strength for this, though.

SzélsőFa said...

Wow, what a description of a geriatric nursing home...
It seems like you choose a challenging job.
And what a touching story, too.

Unknown said...

Aine, this is really touching, and I'm glad you are talking about it. It is a difficult choice for many families to have to put their parents in a home. I'm glad you are bringing us into the inside here, give some light to what is usually just a dark neglected hole. I love that you had the kerchief with you at your you, those kind of sentiments I hang on to and cherish.

Aine said...

Aniket~ Yes, you're right. I did choose a path that most of my peers would not have done. And I'm so with you about showing respect for the elderly. In many ways I feel the same about showing respect for young children.

Ha! In the infamous words of that famous wizard, Sirius Black: "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."

Charles~ Perhaps you would surprise yourself...

Szelsofa~ I hope to illustrate the realities of nursing homes even more in my future posts. Most people find them mysterious and therefore uncomfortable.

Catvibe~ It won't surprise you to know that tears were rolling down my cheeks as I was typing that story...

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Aine, I am delighted that you will regale us with your reminiscences about working in a nursing home. You must have story upon story, both funny and sad.

I am sure you brought much joy and peace to the patients, and I know, too, that you must have loved and appreciated them, as well.

Wasn't that a sweet gesture on Elizabeth's part? And what a very beautiful way to venerate her on your wedding day.

Life affirming. I look forward to reading more.

Unknown said...

I can only imagine...
None of the family was with my grandmother when she caught pneumonia and died when she was in a home. Although lucid (sharp as a tack until the last minute), she had broken her hip and was no longer able to take care of herself, even in a special assistance home. One of the nurses there befriended her, and she told me that the morning of her death, Dodo (that's my grandmother) kept talking about the choir she was hearing. I'd love to know if hearing music before death is a common experience. Any insight there?

Anonymous said...

I can vouch for what a bright ray of light Aine brought to the residents. It didn't change when she was the professional rather than the aide, either. As much as I don't want to think that our last moments define us, if they do in any way, then Aine made them much brighter for these people. :) :)

Aine said...

Kaye~ I'm happy to share these stories. As the years are passing, I fear losing the details. Blogging seems a perfect way to record them, and share the joys with others!

Catvibe~ How wonderful that you were given such a lovely detail about your grandmother's passing! I haven't heard anyone mentioning choirs. But I do think that for many of us, we experience what we expect to experience. I will blog about the bit of experience I have with moments of death, but the folks who I know about were too confused or semi-conscious to be able to share such thoughts.

Jason~ Thanks! :) I still feel as though I only did what anyone else would do. But I do hope that my presence in the last chapter of their lives had a positive impact.

Geraldine said...

What a lovely post Aine. Loved the beautiful ending most of all. I have very mixed feelings re: nursing homes. My mom was in long-term care for 6 long, heartbreaking years. In my opinion, it's all about the staff that work at a particular facility. Nothing can take the place of caring, compassionate people. Nothing can take away the damage that those who do not possess these traits, leave behind. Enough said. I'm sure you added sunshine to many resident's lives. Your compassion comes through your words.

Hugs, G

Hoodie said...


I'm one of those people who have alaways had a hard time with Nursing Homes. I do better now, but as a teenager I was a part of group that frequently did service projects and visiting the nursing home was favorite. I would usually end up bursting into tears because I felt so uncomfortable.

One Valentines Day I encountered an old man who asked me if I could help him pull his pants up. He was completely naked from the waist down.

If the same thing happened to me now I would just help him and chat, but I was positively mortified when I was 17. I've never even known grandparents. Until I married, I'd never had any interaction at all with the elderly.

I think it is a special gift to have a natural compassion for those in a more dependent phase of life.