From the time I lined up my first babysitting gig, I was hooked. Dog walking, cat feeding, house watching, table bussing, package delivering, camp counseling, unpaid interning, basically everything was fun to me. (Except for flower watering. I can’t get past bees).
And so when another summer rolled around and I found plan A and B and C and D and E falling apart, I was in a panic. I love work and schedules way too much to not have a plan.
I had envisioned this week’s blog post in many ways. I was going to write about how sometimes not having a plan is the best plan. I was going to talk about how sometimes one door closing literally means another one is opening right in front of you. I was going to talk about faith and trust and believing that every bad thing only leads you to something better.
But instead? I’m going to talk about how a home full of septua-, octo-, and nonagenarians changed my life.
This summer, by a twist of fate, I answered a Craigslist ad that my mother had stumbled upon for a receptionist position at the local nursing home. I printed my resume and headed out the door. A week later, I was beginning my first day of training at an all-dementia nursing home.
The schedule put me on a different routine than my previous two summers had. Rather than working standard business hours during the week, I worked the afternoon-evening, weekends included. It wasn’t a full 40-hours, which gave me lots of time for babysitting jobs and, of course, to continue to nurture The Smile Project.
I quickly adjusted to this different schedule, though it was strange to come back at 8 p.m., emotionally drained. There were some days this summer where I would babysit in the morning and go to the nursing home at night.
On those days I found a new phenomenon. Being around two energetic elementary aged boys is physically exhausting, but being around 30 dementia residents is mentally tough.
There were days when I was sworn at and yelled at and told I was a manipulative liar. But you can’t take these words to heart because, you see, dementia doesn’t just eat at your memory; it eats at who you are. It changes people and in turn, is cause for much of the heartache and grief that walked up to my desk each day.
But there were also days where I received a wet kiss on the forehead. Days where I was hugged and held and told I was beautiful beyond compare. There were days they reminded me how loved I was.
I remember the first day of training. I was looking out at 70 interchanging white-haired individuals. I remember thinking there was no way I would ever remember all the names…or who had a walker…or who lived on what side…or anything.
I remember the second day I was on my own. It was a weekend and the activities person wasn’t there. I looked at my options, all day movies, or improvising. Naturally, I chose the latter. I began the morning talking about my dog. Oh, how they love dogs. They love when dogs visit, they love videos of dogs, and of course, they love hearing about mine.
We talked about different countries and different cities. I felt like a teacher, only I was making everything up (but staying factual) as I went along. It was a blast.
I remember talking to my boss one day as he told me which resident had a Purple Heart and which was in the Battle of the Bulge…which one had 14 siblings and which one had no remaining family…which resident had 2 PhDs and which resident left school to work on the family farm. I remember thinking there was no way I would learn all this history.
But then I realized something else, something even more haunting. Dementia doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you’re college educated or a middle school drop-out. It comes whether or not you have the financial backing or resources to handle it. Regardless of whether your family is across the street or across the country, this disease does not discriminate.
And so I’ve spent a summer sitting with residents, visitors, nurses, and aids. I’ve talked to hospice workers and funeral directors and have noticed a few things.
Some of the behavioral changes associated with dementia include anxiety, depression, aggression, or boredom. I’ve talked with visitors who lamented that their loved one never knew anger until now. I’ve felt the pain in their eyes as they tell me that it’s like they are visiting a different person.
But I’ve also noticed another thing. All of the things that made this job a challenge, residents bolting for the door or repeatedly trying to get on the phone to call their parents or children, all of the things that can make the task difficult are rooted in love.
Many, if not all, of my residents have no living parents, but they are desperate to get back to them. They run for the door because love for their mother tells them that she may be home alone and looking for them. They pick up my phone because they need to call their son and tell him they made it home safe because he’ll be worried. It’s easy to understand why my insistence that they may not leave out the front door is frustrating to them.
Because they love.
My residents love like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve spent the past however many shifts learning and growing and watching a sea of white and grey hair transform into a sea of stories and memories. I’ve learned about their heritage and their families. I’ve talked to them about my dreams and soaked up their advice like a sponge.
I began typing this post before I left for work today, my last shift at the nursing home. I was cut off as I went upstairs for the last time to clip my magnetic nametag onto my sweater. Toward the end of my shift, I found one of my favorite residents standing before me, with her walker to the side, waiting expectantly with her arms open. As she wrapped me in embrace and murmured her well wishes, I could feel her voice cracking as I knew mine would betray me soon as well.
I walked the residents out of our “Town Square” lobby to their respective hallways, closing the doors behind me. I gave my hugs freely and when my eyes were finally on the verge of spilling over, I slipped back to the lobby to fulfill my end of the night duties.
I was nearly to my car 15 minutes later before the emotion I had fought so hard to contain came spilling out. I’ve been off work for 45 minutes now and I haven’t stopped crying.
But it isn’t a bad type of cry. I know I can keep in touch with the visitors and residents and staff I have grown to love. It’s the type of cry it takes when you’ve finally seen the full picture and can truly appreciate the blessing you received, even if it came in disguise.
This was not a part of my summer plan but alas it ended up making my summer the best I could have asked for.
Two nights ago, on my second to last shift, I asked the group of elderly ladies that surrounded me what advice they would give to someone my age. The usual chatty and humor filled table was suddenly quiet as they all were uncertain of who would begin.
I jotted some notes into my notebook and the last general consensus quote seems to fit this feeling perfectly:
“Everything resolves itself. Sometimes, even better than you thought it would.”
I had no idea I would end up at my nursing home and I had no idea, once I was there, that leaving would be so exceptionally difficult. But I suppose I’m lucky in that way. It wouldn’t be hard to leave if I didn’t love them so much.
To the resident who taught me how to dance, to the resident who taught me how to play Gin Rummy, to the resident who taught me everything else there is to know about life: thank you.
I love you forever.
Signing off for the last time,