©2019 THE SMILE PROJECT

Dear Isabelle*

May 18, 2016

Every now and then, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet a group of people who completely change the course of your life. For me, those people were a group of old women that my mom found on Craigslist.

 

I’m starting to realize that all my best stories come from times when I’ve taken a completely bold and reckless gamble. On a smaller scale, this was one of those times.

 

Last summer, I had accepted a position with a volunteer corps and was very interested in the work I would be doing. However, I had my concerns. I was still coming back from being sick and the idea of an hour commute both ways and an 8-hour shift in between was worrisome to a body that was still getting readjusted to walking my dog.

 

Ultimately, in the midst of a slew of concerns, I decided to back out of my position. Training hadn’t yet begun but it was the first time in my life I felt like I had quit something – like I had just walked away. It wasn’t a good feeling.

 

I began scouring the job listings. Suddenly the girl who always had a plan had no summer job. For some this would be an opportunity – for me, it was impossible. I can last about 4 days without structured work before I completely lose my mind.

 

I was at my grandparents when my mom sent me the post. It was a Craigslist ad for a part-time receptionist at a nursing home about 10 minutes from my house. I had volunteered there in high school and the commute couldn’t be beat. I called the number and inquired about the position.

 

Just come in.

 

The next day, I was sitting in the business manager’s office.

 

This is an all-Dementia home. Do you have any experience with that?

 

I admitted that I didn’t. I hadn’t even realized it wasn’t just a typical nursing home. It wasn’t even under the same management as it was when I volunteered in high school. I should have done more research.

 

The day after that I was accepting the job over the phone and before I knew it, I was holding onto my very own “Liz B. // Receptionist” ID badge.

 

I spent the rest of the summer working as a part-time receptionist for the nursing home. After my last shift in August 2015, I cried for days (and wrote this post).

 

The nursing home was a great place to work. The staff was kind. The families were amazing. My residents were stunningly beautiful and even though I can’t play favorites, there was one group that I spent a lot of time with.

 

You see, during my 21st year, the people I spent the most time with for an entire summer was a group of women in their 80s and 90s. We called ourselves the Gossip Girls and after dinner, the whole gang would gather around a few tables in the back of Town Square (the main lobby and where all the activity is) and talk about whatever could keep their interest. There were two regular visitors, anywhere from 2-10 residents, and myself. Sometimes we played Gin Rummy. Sometimes Uno. Sometimes we watched America’s Funny Home Videos or the old Johnny Carson tape with the animal hijinks. But my favorite days were when we would just sit around and talk. It didn’t matter where the discussion went: animals, traveling, boys – how they loved to talk about boys. The ladies would drink coffee and we’d cover everything under the sun. And I loved them. So I was happy.

 

When I returned to college for my senior semester, I wrote letters to my residents – sent through one of the resident’s daughters. I included pictures and updated them all. She would tell me how much they enjoyed seeing the pictures.

 

The first time I came home for a weekend, I hopped in the car and nervously drove to the home. Alzheimer’s and Dementia is tricky and people can decline seemingly out of nowhere. Even though my Gossip Girls were extremely high functioning during the summer, anything could have happened since.

 

I walked into the nursing home and four sets of eyes lit up. I was home.

 

We sat and talked about college and my life and I got caught up on all the happenings at the home. It was hard – in a way – to go back. I would catch up with the staff and they’d tell me who had passed away. The resident that taught me how to dance. The resident who always kissed my cheeks. The resident whose husband came to visit every night. It was heart breaking.

 

I had grown so close to everyone I had interacted with and losing them was almost too much.

 

But I always counted on the Gossip Girls. They were healthy and strong and even though I knew they had Alzheimer’s or Dementia, nothing could happen to them. They were my superheroes.

 

I was home recently for a wedding and had reached out to my resident’s daughter – let’s call her Kathy* – in excitement to schedule a lunch date while I was home with the ladies. It wasn’t the original crew from the summer. People had passed and new residents had joined. But I knew that even in my limited time at home – I had to see my residents.

 

That’s when she hit me with the news I never wanted to hear. The group was about 10 strong on a good day. 7 residents, 2 visitors, and me. But regardless of who else came out to visit after dinner, every day there were four of us. Two residents – we’ll call them Rebekah and Isabelle* – Rebekah’s daughter, Kathy and me.

 

Hanging out with the three of them was the highlight of my summer. It didn’t take long for me to realize that these women were my best friends. Going even further, the single resident I found myself spending the most time with was Isabella. She was always at every activity and was very high functioning. She was one of the funniest women I’ve ever met and she had one of the purest hearts.

 

At the end of the night, I would close off the left wing of the nursing home and then walk with Kathy, Rebekah, and Isabella to close off the right wing. Since Kathy was Rebekah’s daughter, she would take her mom to her room to help her get ready for bed and I would be left with Isabelle.

 

She always had to wait for her medicine so I would sit with her for as long as I could to assure her that she was okay and that the nurse would be by in just a second and then she could go to her room and get ready for bed. I’d park her wheelchair next to the sofa and sit by, holding her hand and telling her stories about my dog so she wouldn’t become too confused or nervous if she thought she was alone.

 

She was my best friend.

 

Every time I went back to the nursing home, I was welcomed with open arms – even when there were fewer and fewer arms with which to hug me. Finally, in preparation for coming home for the wedding, Kathy told me that Isabella wasn’t doing well. She couldn’t answer when I asked if she’d make it until I got home.

 

I was home about a month ago for the wedding and I drove to the nursing home as I have so many times in the past. Isabelle didn’t join us for lunch but the nurses did bring her out to Town Square a bit later so she could join in the afternoon activity.

 

I watched as her chair was parked in her favorite spot and slowly got up to make my way over. I pulled over a chair and she looked at me blankly.

 

Hi.

 

I addressed her by name.

 

How are you feeling today?

 

She stared at me for quite some time – as if trying to place her mind to a memory she couldn’t reach. She looked as beautiful as she always did and we talked for a few moments – mostly me talking to her. I’m not sure what parts, if any, she understood.

 

I got up and walked back to the group, biting back tears. There was a quiet old woman with curly white hair who changed my life in profound ways sitting steps from me and I could not express my gratitude in ways she could understand.

 

When it was time to go, I walked over once more. I gave her a gentle hug and just as I had before leaving the nursing home after my last shift last summer, I kissed her forehead and told her that I loved her.

 

Isabelle passed away last week.

 

I got the news yesterday. It was a question I was afraid to ask because it was the answer I already knew but couldn’t acknowledge. It wasn’t just that my residents were a state away from me. It was that she was gone. That was it. Just like that.

 

As I sat down to write a blog post today, I had no topic in mind and started three posts before I realized what I really wanted to write about. I reached into my bag and produced my purple notebook – the one I brought to the nursing home on my last shift there as an employee. I had asked some of my ladies for advice about anything.

 

I scanned for Isabelle’s name:

 

            “Go through life with your socks on. (No shoes). It saves money!”

 

I remember looking down at the thick socks she wore on her feet. She didn’t need shoes in her wheel chair. But she did always have cozy looking socks.

 

I kept reading their quotes – wishing I had asked them for advice every day of the summer. Then I found the one that has rung in my head since she said it.

 

Isabelle looked at me with such pride on my last shift and said: “I don’t want to see you back here.”

 

Her joking tone and sock saving tips were off the table.

 

What do you mean, I can’t come visit you?

 

Well, I guess you can come visit. But you have to go do big things. You have a whole world to see. I want you to go live your life – not hang around here with all us old ladies. You have to move on to better things. Because you’re kind. You can do that.

 

Little does she know that being told I’m kind by one of the most amazing women I’ve ever known is perhaps the highest honor I could have achieved.  

 

*I’ve changed all the names in this post for the sake of privacy, but dear Isabelle, thank you. Thank you for being the greatest friend, mentor, and resident I could have ever asked for.

 

Love always,

 

Liz B.

Receptionist

 

Click here to donate to the Alzheimer’s Association

 

 

 

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