Friday, May 29, 2009

Living History

(Part 3 of "Finding a Home in Nursing Homes")

(Photo by Jason Evans)

Though the nursing center is modern and current events are blaring from TVs, I was constantly reminded of the era that shaped the residents. There was a curious duality in the Octogenarians and Nonagenarians wearing Nikes and toting CD players. Those moments when evidence of their vintage broke through are some of my most treasured memories. I'll start with Milly...


Milly was a happy, fun-loving, easy-going woman who raised 8 or 9 children on her farm in rural Pennsylvania. She had suffered a stroke which left her hemiplegic-- with little or no function of her left arm and leg. We could bathe and dress her in bed easily, but she required two aides to help her stand and pivot into her wheelchair.

No one minded the interruption when called to help with the transfer. Because Milly was a joyful soul, with wonderfully contagious laughter. Actually, the stroke damaged her emotion control center, leaving her with emotional lability: inappropriate (often exaggerated) expression of emotion. When Milly laughed, everyone laughed, then Milly would laugh harder and so on. She was known to exclaim that she had peed because she was laughing too hard, which would require a change of her "diaper." So the regular aides knew to get the laughter out before finishing the bathing and dressing routine.

When I first met Milly, two aides were in the process of helping her into her chair and laughter filled the room. Something was said that inspired a great guffaw from Milly, which sent her dentures flying across the room! Naturally this resulted in more laughs and by the time we had her dry and seated, we all were wiping the tears from our faces.

At the start of summer, a young girl who was studying nursing at the local university took a summer job as an aide. Darla was African-american, and from the city. She clearly had the disposition for nursing, and was immediately accepted by the staff. So, at the end of her first day of training, we sent her to answer Milly's call light (Milly was an "easy" resident-- generally happy and not medically complex).

Darla shuffled down the hall and disappeared into Milly's room. Next came an ear-splitting shriek and we saw Darla backing into the hall with a mixture of shock, concern, and resigned amusement on her face as Milly shouted, "Help! She escaped! Send her back on the boat!"

After a moment of confusion (we weren't accustomed to hearing Milly angry or scared), Darla looked at us and we all erupted into laughter. It was a sudden reminder of the generational differences. Milly was scared. Because she had not been exposed to cultural diversity in her quiet, rural life.

By the end of the summer, Milly enjoyed Darla's care, and was sad to say goodbye when fall semester resumed.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Eyes of dusty green


strong line of jaw


feelings of rare comfort


darkest hours of night


souls dance together


You stood with grace and calm as I walked the aisle. Strength and intelligence, under the eaves of Victorian twilight. Seventeen years ago, at seven in the evening, you joined my life's path. Thank you for the magic, for the beauty, for the understanding.

For the love.

Happy Anniversary, my Prince of Twilight.

From the deep sea of Clouds
To the island of the moon,
Carry me on the waves
To the lands I've never been,
Carry me on the waves
To the lands I've never seen.

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.