95903_000_012Most of us feel awkward visiting a nursing home, but I quickly found meaning in each visit.
The front entry is the gathering place. Dottie waits there. Papa might come and take her home today. She doesn’t like this school much, and Papa said if she didn’t like it, he would take her home. Why won’t Papa come?
Lena paces the hallway hoping someone will speak to her, yet turning away if they do. Billy reaches out to each person who passes and points proudly to his name tag, every day a different tag, in different shapes. But they always have his name on them.
Inez peers through the long windows by the door. She can see the mountains from there. She carefully watches all who pass her without stopping. She doesn’t ask why they don’t stop, but when someone does stop to greet her, she holds onto them extra tight and long and lets tears fall upon her smile.
These persons are the lonely and forgotten, the residents of a nursing home. I was one who often passed by. I barely even noticed the building, let alone what might be inside. Then an assignment opened my eyes and instructed me in ways I had not expected.
When you enter a nursing home, the first things you are likely to notice are medical aids: wheelchairs, walkers, canes, beds with side rails. Second, you may notice the smells. Third, you notice bodies—not the people—just their bodies. Feeling conspicuous, you don’t want to stare. Consequently, you glance at them superficially, seeing them not as individuals but, rather, almost as objects. However, once you open your heart and begin to see them as the children of our Heavenly Father, your feelings change.
A nursing home is not a school, yet profound is the teaching as well as the learning that goes on there. The first lesson I learned there was gratitude.
Richard sits in his wheelchair. His body is bent, his limbs badly twisted. In his eyes, there is a faraway look.
If I ask Richard a question, he will not speak, because he is unable. But with extreme effort he can manipulate a typewriter with his twisted hands and answer me.
Though I had always thought of myself as a grateful person, I learned otherwise from Richard one day. I found that he didn’t spend his days wishing to be able to speak or walk or to be made strong and whole. Richard told me that if he could wish for one thing it would be merely the dignity of regular body functions that would allow him to care for himself. I was ashamed of how much I take for granted.
The importance of trust was the second lesson I learned during my nursing home visits, and it was Janette who taught me this lesson.
Like a butterfly upon a flower, Janette’s smile lit upon all who entered her door. I couldn’t help smiling in return, yet Janette never saw the smiles she caused. She was blind.
She knew people’s distinctive footsteps, and her greeting was always the same: “I’ve been waiting for you. I knew you would come.” She allowed us to lead her to the dining room, where the sacrament meetings are held. Right up to the last two weeks of her life, she never missed these meetings. Then, at the last, when the sacrament was brought to her bed, she would still say, “I’ve been waiting for you. I knew you would come.”
My third nursing home lesson was patience. Karen’s speech is difficult to understand, as is the speech of John and Berniece and many other residents. To aid her communication with others, Karen often has an alphabet board taped to her chair. Slowly, she spells out the words, pointing to each letter with jerking motions. If she forgets what she is spelling, she begins again. When the board is not on her chair, she must talk, and it is sometimes difficult to understand even a word. Patiently, she repeats herself again and again, never getting angry. I get embarrassed for her; she gets embarrassed for me. Then I hug her, and we both laugh. The laughter is never difficult to understand.
Ruby taught me a fourth lesson—devotion. She spends almost as much time at the nursing home as she does at her own home. Feeding John his favorite snacks, keeping Nancy’s water cup filled, holding Leonor’s hand, laughing and crying with whoever needs her, Ruby is there for them.
Of Ruby’s devotion, Ardith said simply, “She loves us.” She listens, ties shoes, strings beads, cleans up spills, and brushes the crumbs away.
Compassion is a fifth lesson I received. When my husband, Dan, began helping at the nursing home, he couldn’t bring himself to touch anyone. He was afraid of hurting them. So he sat for the first two months, watching others bring the nursing home’s residents to Church meetings.
Then, reluctantly at first, he began bringing them into the room for meetings—all but Andrea, who would allow no man to touch her. I helped her myself, until I had to be away for several weeks after surgery. Dan had to assist her during the weeks I was gone, but she resisted him the first week.
The second week, she patted his hand, which was resting on the arm of her wheelchair. Dan sat by her during the sacrament service and returned her to her room afterwards. Then, the third week, she told him to sit by her. When I returned on the fourth week, she asked me to bend down close so she could whisper to me what had happened.
Dan began to help others after that, holding their hands. He began listening and began to love them. They were always in his prayers after that, in his conversations, in his heart.
The compassion he learned there followed him into our home and into his dealings with others. At the nursing home, Dan had learned he could hold Lewis when he was most confused and let Lewis cry in his arms until the feeling passed. He could talk softly to Mark, calming Mark’s jerking and twitching enough to place the sacrament bread in Mark’s mouth. He could bend down and place Bessie’s shoe on her foot and then gently wipe her face.
Dan no longer saw twisted bodies, wheelchairs, and beds. He saw the smiles on faces of people he had come to know; he recognized the boundless love they have to offer. He saw them for the lonely, loving people they are.
Though some of their bodies are spent, barely responsive to their bright, alert minds, and though others have bodies that function around minds that sometimes wander, their spirits respond to the love we give. Love is returned a thousandfold!