Old People’s Home
– W.H. Aulden
All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage. The elite can dress and decent themselves,
are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps their very
carnal freedom is their spirit’s bane: intelligent
of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.) Then come those on wheels, the average
majority, who endure T.V. and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody. (Plants may sweat profusely but never
sully themselves.) One tie, though, unites them: all
appeared when the world, though much was awry there, was more
spacious, more comely to look at, it’s Old Ones
with an audience and secular station. Then a child,
in dismay with Mamma, could refuge with Gran
to be revalued and told a story. As of now,
we all know what to expect, but their generation
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned
to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience
as unpopular luggage.
As I ride the subway
to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her hey-day,
when week-end visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work. Am I cold to wish for a speedy
painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?
The poem that Lynn shared in her post a couple of weeks ago inspired me to start looking at poetry again. This one in particular really spoke to me today. The lines of this poem match up with the faces in my head. I think that’s why I like it so much. It puts into words something that I’ve never been sure how to verbalize- how do I help people who’ve lost so much? Each line brings to mind a resident to match it.
Mrs. E- a stroke took her sight, and old age took her strength. Every time I help her with a shower, she apologizes for taking up so much of my time. Mrs. A doesn’t like my help- her mind is going, but while she still has her body she wants me to know it. Whenever I forget, she’s quick to remind me, “I can do it.”
A resident whose name I can’t remember anymore. “Would you like to go to Happy Hour?” A blank stare at the wall- no. “Would you like to watch some TV then?” An eye roll and a shrug- yes. I turn the TV on, and change it to the channel she asks for. I’d like to stay and cheer her up. But I have two call lights going off, and a shower to give before dinner. The stare has been transferred from the wall to the TV.
Mrs. F. I like to think that she and I have a bond- she might be losing most of her function, but her sense of humor is still intact. After dinner she leaves to round the building in her wheelchair, and I let her go. It’s better than keeping her cooped up on the hall with nothing to do.
The geri-chair group on the Skilled unit. After dinner, we group them around the TV until we can put them to bed. Mrs. W sits and watches the TV, and next to her Mrs. K mutters nonsense, the same phrases repeated over and over.
Sometimes I find myself forgetting that they used to be different. I’ve only known them like this, and in a way, I guess that makes it easier? I don’t have to remember, to look at their faces and see what used to be. But if I pay attention, I can see glimpses that still shine through.
Mr. J used to be a farmer and every once in a while he’ll tell me he can’t go to bed because he needs to check on the cows. Mrs. F isn’t the person she used to be, but she absolutely lights up every Thursday evening when her grandson visits. It’s the longest I’ve ever seen her sit in one place without getting bored.
Mrs. V used to let me practice my Spanish with her, before she stopped walking down to the dining room. Mrs. M likes to chat about crime shows. Mr. B likes to discuss logic and human nature.
They’re still there. Behind the eyes of each of my residents sits a person trying to hold onto what’s left of their life. I find it hard to deal with, and I get to go home at the end of the shift. They don’t. If I’m burnt out, I can’t imagine how they must feel.
My favorite quote comes from the book Unwind by Neal Shusterman. The book itself has nothing to do with long term care, but this one quote has always stuck with me- “Love the ones you can. Pray for the rest.” I’m trying to make this my work philosophy. Each day, I am given a group of people to care for, and for that day, they are mine to love. I can’t do everything. I can’t make legs work or memories come back or pain go away. But I can smile. I can listen. I can look and actually SEE. I might not be able to do everything, I can do SOMETHING. And then I can go home and pray about the rest of it.