Thursday, May 7, 2009

Finding a Home in Nursing Homes-- Elizabeth

I was introduced to Elizabeth after a warning from my new coworkers. Several of the aides rolled their eyes and sniggered as my trainer said to them, "Oh come on, she's a very nice lady…. She just likes things done her way."

Elizabeth sat in her nightgown, one arm in a sling and her eyebrow raised as we entered one of only four private rooms in the nursing home.

"Good morning!" chirped my trainer.

"You're late," stated Elizabeth, but I noted a bit of a mischievous glint in her eyes.

I soon learned that Elizabeth expected help to walk to the closet, using her four-point cane, so that she could choose which silk blouse she'd like to wear with the dark slacks that filled her closet. She also had a particular order in which she liked her sponge bath to proceed. And the entire process took at least 30 minutes, a queen's ration of the 2 ½ hours that we had to wash and dress the 12 residents on our assignment. When finished, she sat in her wheelchair with a straight back, blotting her bright red lipstick and patting her coif into place. She smiled at me.

"You'll do fine, she likes you," my trainer remarked as we swept from the room.

Elizabeth had more grace and dignity than any other resident I had ever met in my career. Though the aides joked and called her "the queen mum," I detected a friendly undercurrent. They simultaneously hated answering Elizabeth's call bell and loved receiving her approval.

As months passed, I grew closer to Elizabeth. She warmed to me quickly when she discovered that I had graduated from the same college as her son. And she appreciated my gentle touch, when other aides were a bit gruffer (which was necessary with some residents-- much like the difference between a strict, but fair teacher and a warm, gentle teacher.)

Elizabeth's stroke had left her with right-sided hemiparesis: weakness in her right side. She wore a special shoe with a brace which was difficult to put on. It required massaging her foot and ankle to relax the abnormally high muscle tone in order to slip her foot into the shoe. Many of the aides got frustrated. It soon became known that a few of us were more adept at donning the shoe. So whenever possible, we'd be called in to help. When I was called in, Elizabeth would give me the "thank goodness it's you" look along with a scowling grimace and a fake bop on the head of the aide who was kneeling in front of her, intent on stuffing her foot into the shoe. I'd smile and take over.

But the real gem underneath the dignified exterior was revealed when one of my co-workers (my best friend at that job) began teasing Elizabeth. Her sense of humor reluctantly emerged as she felt more at ease with us.

One day, the aide who trained me, my best friend, and I were in Elizabeth's room. The trainer was telling us the story of how she thought her vacuum was broken.

"I attached the hose, you know, and it wouldn't suck! It would only blow, not suck!"

Elizabeth burst into laughter along with my friend and I, as a look of embarrassed surprise came over the trainer's face.

"Oh! I didn't mean it to sound that way," she exclaimed as she giggled. But Elizabeth just waved her off and laughed heartily.

And then there was the day that Elizabeth called my friend and I into her room, blushing and insisting that we close the door. She had a book in front of her, she'd been reading a romance.

"I have a question for you. What exactly is…" she paused with a nervous smile, then whispered, "oral sex, you know, for the woman?"

My friend, who thankfully was embarrassed by nothing, explained.

"You mean… the man… does that... there?"

She had a horrified look for a moment, then, "Oh… oh!" And she smiled, causing my friend and I to giggle like teenagers at a sleepover.

Elizabeth taught me that day that it doesn't matter what time period we live in, how sophisticated we try to be, or how old we are… we are all human. All the same. These withered, weakened bodies who had lived through world wars, gender inequality, and a culture that held family values higher than any generation since, were just like me. There was no reason to feel fear or shy when helping them with basic daily tasks. I could be in that wheelchair one day. And I wouldn't want to be treated like a mothball ridden relic either.


Karen said...

Aine - You reveal a beautiful, gentle spirit in your entries about this job and your friend Elizabeth. The last paragraph has brought tears to my eyes. Elizabeth and you were fortunate to have had one another, I think.

Aniket Thakkar said...

LOLed on the vacuum thingy! :D :D

Elizabeth is a fine fine lady. You are fortunate to have met her.

And so was she to have you taking care of her in her last days.

Your trainer seems a very nice lady too. :)

A wonderful lesson for us all in the last para. Thank you.

Charles Gramlich said...

How few of us really take the time to get to know people who could perhaps light us up with their inner beauty

SzélsőFa said...

Thanks for sharing.
From your voice it all sounds demanding but worthwile. I truly respect people who do important and difficult jobs like this.

Unknown said...

Jeeze Aine, Elizabeth could have been my grandmother! My grandmother insisted on her red lipstick until the day she died. She called it her 'red badge of courage.'

Elizabeth sounds like the kind of dynamo woman I'd like to grow up to be. She was extra lucky to have come by you.

You wrote this beautifully Aine. You're a gem.

Anonymous said...

You really captured the spirit in this post. I can still see you doing that massage to put on Elizabeth's shoe!

I think you were the catalyst to make these connections. Without you, I'm not sure that Elizabeth would have opened up as much or have shown the personality and mischief (I saw that too!) beneath the facade. And without that opening, the other workers could not have warmed up to her and become more open themselves.

You did so much good there. :) And continue to do it.

Sarah Hina said...

Just a beautifully relayed memory, Aine. I saw it all so vividly, with your hallmark warmth and ease bringing out the best in everyone.

And I love that she felt comfortable enough with you to broach a very awkward subject for a lady of her generation. And that you all shared a cute, spontaneous laugh over it, too. :) No wonder you remember her so well!

You're right about the fear people manufactured there, too, for no real reason. It's a negative feedback cycle, turning everyone on their guard, likely. I'm glad you were able to slice through the defenses and touch that common, precious thread. :)

Aine said...

Karen~ Thank you! I'm touched that you were moved, too. I'm glad that I decided to start sharing these stories.

Aniket~ Glad you laughed with us! It was a rather hysterical moment, and I was hoping to convey it adequately (often when I try to tell a funny story, I need to end it with the old "I guess you had to be there....")

Charles~ Sometimes it's hard to find people who are courageous and graceful enough to open up and share their inner beauty, too. I find myself in awe and admiration of those who do.

Szelsofa~ Thank you. I wish the people who do these difficult jobs got much more recognition and respect. As I've learned, in healthcare, the most important (primary) caregivers are the least educated and least paid. They are truly unsung heroes.

Catvibe~ :D I love meeting such spunky folks!

sounds like the kind of dynamo woman I'd like to grow up to be Pshaw! You've already got such a spirit!

I sense that, if you are ever in need of a nursing home, you will be giving just as much as you are receiving (if not more). You'll be the type of woman who inspires others more than you realize. Because you already do.

And thanks about the writing! Usually Jason helps me tighten up my thoughts, but he had only a minor suggestion on this one. I'm feeling rather proud of myself! ;)

Jason~ Thank you for that! I was blessed to have a fantastic team to work with at that home, so I'm not convinced I was such a catalyst. But I do believe that my presence was just as integral as the other nurses in creating the warm atmosphere.

Your words mean a great deal to me.

Sarah~ You would've adored Elizabeth, I think. And she would have loved Plum Blossoms!

I was blessed to have worked with aides who had a natural, down-to-earth ease with people (obviously E's! LOL). I learned so much from watching their fearlessness. I give them credit for the start of my therapeutic style, how I interact with clients.

laughingwolf said...

long live queen liz :) lol

when it's your turn, aine, at least you already know that oral sex bit ;)

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

What a very human story you have shared with us.

How wonderful that we can make these valuable connections in our lives with other people. It teaches us how to live.

Your story was beautifully written and sensitively rendered. Thanks!

Aine said...

laughingwolf~ Somehow I think that there will be some newfangled thing that "young people" will be doing when I get there... :P

Kaye~ Thanks! It was like taking a master class with the village elders!

Karen said...

Aine - You probably don't "do" awards, either, but I'm offering one for you at my place. Please come by and read about it, anyway. It's the thought that counts... ;-)

Vesper said...

Aine, I've always admired your positive take on all of life's aspects, and this post and the previous one only come to strengthen that admiration. You are a wonderful soul.

Mariposa said...

Got here through Canterbury have a good heart!

I'd love to be back and read more.

Aine said...

Karen~ Thank you so much!! I haven't been in blogland much during the past two weeks. End of school year events, field trips, etc. have kept me away from my computer. Please forgive me for not accepting the award more promptly! :) It truly means a lot that you've selected me! Thank you!

Vesper~ Your comment means the world to me. I think we (especially moms) are too quick to brush off the things we do as ordinary. I believe that you are more special than you give yourself credit for, too, Vesper. I sense the quiet strength of a graceful and beautiful soul whenever I visit your blog. Again, thank you...

Mariposa~ Welcome!! I'd love to see you again.

Alex Moore said...

what a beautiful piece...much enjoyed. thank you for sharing.