You hear all the cliches. Life is short, YOLO, your health is everything, just do it, and so on. They are everywhere you turn. When you are younger and you hear “if you have your health, you have everything”, you probably smile and nod then go on with your day. It never really sinks in unless you are suffering some medical maladie at the time. Most of these saying float around us, especially on social media, and we note them or ignore them but never really consider what they mean.
Yesterday was my first volunteer day at a local nursing home. I chose the state-funded home rather than a private nursing home because they don’t have a lot of volunteers and most of their residents had no money or family to help care for them. I’m no expert on nursing homes, so if this is ring, forgive me but that is my best guess. My employer gives us one day a year to volunteer but while I used this paid day off to help, this is also my new volunteer project outside of work. My therapist suggested that I was missing helping people and that maybe I try more volunteering. I’ve been lost since my mom died and my girls are grown. You go from being needed to being well, not needed quite as much. And while I didn’t want to rush into something that would be as difficult as caring for a parent with terminal cancer, I did miss helping people.
I chose to try the nursing home becuase when my mom passed, we donated many of her medical supplies to this nursing home. The lady who took them said how desperate they are in need for donations and help. The building is an old brick building that once was an old infirmary. The inside is a little dated and worn. It’s not posh or set up to feel like a resident is in their own home. It is simply like an older hospital inside. They don’t have a lot of money to work with but the place is spotless and the residents are well cared for as far as I could tell. When I walked in and asked the activities director about volunteering, she whisked me to a nurses station to start my TB test rounds. They don’t get a lot of volunteers it seems. It felt good to be needed again, even if it was for a few hours or so a week.
People shy away from nursing homes because they seem depressing. This is the place you go to die, confined to small areas. And honestly, before my mom’s ordeal with cancer and her death, I felt the same. What changed my mind was in the last weeks of her life, they had moved her to the nursing floor of the hospital and kept her there as long as they could to help us take care of her in her final days. My mom at this point could not walk or care for herself, she was a shell of who she had once been which was a formidable force of nature who had rose through the ranks of her company to be one of the top people at her site. Even today, people will tell me, I remember your mom. She was quite a lady and didn’t mince words. Yeah, that pretty much sums her up a bit. She had spent so much time confined to her house and couldn’t do the things she loved anymore.
For a month, she was under the care of the nursing floor. They would have different people volunteer and come in and do crafts, or bring in a dog to visit her. She had people around her in and out all the time. The thing that was most surprising was she didn’t seem to want to rush home like her past hospital stays. What you don’t realize is when a person loses their health, their world shrinks incredibly. Suddenly instead of being grouchy that someone wanted to come sit and do a craft with her, she was excited about it. Though it seems like a small thing, to her this person added happiness to her quickly fading life. It gave her a way to feel productive and useful from her bed. She crocheted up until the last few weeks of her life to keep herself productive. She hated to be idle and useless. I read a news story where a bed-ridden man knitted thousands of hats for people in need. He couldn’t do much, but he could bring warmth and comfort to a stranger.
The nursing staff became my mom’s friends and they joked with her, got to know us and even shared cake in our last birthday celebration (my husband, my daughter and my birthdays are all in February – my mom died mid-March) with her. As sad as this all seems, they are the sweetest, most precious moments. And yesterday, I walked the halls of the nursing home, pushing carts of presents, finding residents packages for ‘Santa’ and ‘Mrs. Claus’ to pass out to people. Santa and his wife were telling me they do over 40 nursing homes a year and they enjoy it very much. Watching them walk into an otherwise quiet dining room where half the people are sleeping and seeing them all light up like kids on Christmas, reminded me that it’s often the littlest things that are the most important.
If you have your health you have everything is truer than we know. Right now I have the world in my hands because I am able to walk and care for myself. The people in this nursing home, the only things they own are probably right in their room with them. You can’t take it with you. You certainly can’t. There is a married couple that have to reside in separate rooms. Which I wish they had a way to reside in the same room. I’m not familiar with why this is, but I am sure there is rules that require this. I thought about my husband and I having to live on different areas of a nursing home and I held him a little tighter as I fell asleep last night.
I watched the staff interact with the residents and saw very real caring. They love the residents and watch out for them. I’m not saying you don’t get a bad person in the crop sometimes but the people who work there aren’t doing it for the money because I doubt they get paid premium working in a state home. I collected a lot of smiles yesterday. I helped put a new bead on a lady’s charm bracelet, I heard how one of the residents had a sore butt. I had talked to this lady before when I was waiting for a nurse to read my TB test. And just like the first time we talked, she took my hand, smiled and thanked me for stopping to talk to her. I about cried, I should have thanked her for talking to me. She was in the memory unit so I don’t even know if she remembered me but it doesn’t matter. If me talking to her made her day just a little brighter, then that was awesome.
I went home feeling elated. Yes, some of what I saw could be considered very depressing but reaching out to people, strangers, it felt very good and it made me realize that at this point and time, I own the world. I can sit around and feel like I missing out on something, that I didn’t achieve this or that goal that in the end, doesn’t even matter. I have my health, I have my family, I have a home, a job and health insurance, I have food and clothes and more possessions than I know what to do with sometimes (and donate a lot).
It is easy for me to feel sorry for myself sometimes especially around the holidays. I miss the hell out of my mom. Christmas (her birthday) just isn’t the same. But there are people in that nursing home with no family or friends that care for them. The activities director was telling me that residents’ families bring in the gifts to be passed out by Santa but they also donate extra items to make sure each person receives a gift. I recognized some of the people since it is a fairly small town. A lady who had been a cashier for years at the small grocery store. I never knew her whole name but I do now. A gentleman I vaguely remember from my church when I was younger. His wife had given me a Precious Moments figuring when my first daughter was born. She had passed years ago and her grave is close to my mom’s. He no longer remembers me but I said hello anyway.
Yesterday’s experience really gave me levity in this week of Christmas. It is a tough week for me. I want to be happy and celebrate for my grown daughters to carry on our traditions but part of me just wants to take down all the decorations and forget there was Christmas at all. Last night I came home and felt much different. Who knows how many Chrisstmases we have to celebrate in our life or even the choice as to where we celebrate it at all. If our body gives out, if our mind fails, we could be sitting in a wheelchair half asleep when ‘Santa’ brings us a small gift.
Life is so short. Love today. Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year. Do yourself a favor in 2017 and volunteer if you don’t already. It is a wonderful gift.