5 days ago
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.