Small Gestures Go A Long Way

Sunflower  May

This would so much easier if there were tears, screaming or something. Hell, at this point I’d take a nightmare and violent confusion. I know how to soothe nightmares. I’m good at chasing the monsters away.
I’m not good at this.
I don’t know how to make this better, this lingering listlessness, the utter lack of energy and interest. It’s not like I’ve never seen this before: depression is wide-spread in the nursing homes. Depression is a hard thing to treat, harder still to manage in the time-crunch of Long-Term Care…the CNAs quite literally do not have the time or emotional energy to coax every one of our residents out of the deadened state of despair every time they fall into it. The sad truth is, when a resident refuses to get out of bed, that’s one less person you have to try to get back into bed later. It’s easy to let slide. It is, after all, the resident’s right to refuse. You can’t make them get up and coaxing takes time. Sometimes a lot of time. You say “I’ll get them next time,” and the next time things are so hectic that you don’t even remember your whispered promise. Eventually, you realize that you’ve let your depressed resident stay in bed for the tenth shift running…but by now it’s a habit, both for you and the resident.
I’ve seen it a hundred times, and I’ve had to turn away, had to prioritize my other residents who really wanted to get up and interact with the world over the one who continually refuses to leave their room…the one who just wants to sleep.
Not this time. I can’t make Mrs. N get up, but I can’t just leave her to wallow in her own regrets and despair.

“I’m not leaving you like this,” I say suddenly. “I’m not giving up on you, okay? I really don’t care if you appreciate it or not. I’m not giving up on you. Ok, then think, May. What helps alleviate depression?”
Sunlight.
I rush to the window and twitch the curtains open. Light floods the room, chasing away the shadows and warming the air. A thousand dust-motes swirl in the golden beams. Well, I feel better, at least…strange how quickly the sunshine can work on human physiology. Mrs. N stirs and mutters. One eye opens, just a tiny sliver and then it’s squeezed shut with a force that only a person can only manage when they’re awake.
Well, that’s sunlight. I can’t think of anything else to do and as much as I like to shut the door and say “I’m not leaving her alone,” I can’t abandon my other residents. Also, if I push too hard, I could unravel any progress I’ve made.
I lean over her and squeeze her limp hand. “I’ll be back,” I tell her.
It’s a busy day (as per normal), so it isn’t until a couple of hours later that I’m able to slip back into Mrs. N’s room to check on her. She’s still laying motionless in her bed, but she’s oriented to the window and her eyes are open. She’s staring out at the green grass, the trees and the flowers. As I watch, a tear slips down her face.
What’s it like for her? She knows that even if she musters the energy to get up, even if she goes outside, she can’t do anything help. She can’t run across the grass, she can’t reach up and touch the trees. She can’t pick the flowers.
Flowers.
I rush from the room, down the hall and out the front door. Thank God for landscaping, because I don’t have to search very long to find what I was looking for.
I head back inside, back to the room that remains gloomy, in spite of the warm sunlight still pouring through the window.
“Here,” I say loudly, ignoring the way she slams her eyes closed and pretends to sleep. I set the handful of flowers I picked down on her bedside. “These are for you.”
She’s so startled that she drops the act mid-snore. I hear a call-light go off down the hall and I reluctantly turn to leave.
“Hey, little girl.”
I turn back. Mrs. N is clutching all of my flowers in her hands.
“Bring me some more tomorrow?”
“Oh, you bet,” I agree softly.

Those of us with whole bodies and sound minds, I think we often forget to appreciate the simple things. Things like opening the curtains to let in light, going outside for a walk when we feel blue. The natural world is bound up tightly in our psyche…replaced by the sterile environment of a hospital-like nursing home, is it any wonder that depression abounds in nursing homes? We can’t give our residents back everything they’ve lost: their mobility, their independence, their careers and loved ones.
By contrast, it’s a simple thing to bring a bit of nature to those who cannot go out to nature…to open a curtain, hang up pictures of landscapes, take them outside for five minutes turn on the Nature Channel, or bring a handful of flowers to a depressed resident who won’t leave her room. But simple doesn’t mean insignificant and small gestures often mean the world to someone who has learned the hard way not to take anything for granted.

There is something about nature that speaks to our primal nature, that has the ability to soothe us even after we lose our words or our will. There’s something about natural light that makes us feel at home, something about flowers that delights us. These primal instincts are a caregiver’s best friend, if you learn how to harness them.

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