No one understood why I wanted to work there. Young people are afraid of old people. Ultimately, that just means fear of death. And to be afraid of death is only to be afraid of life! And yes, it is true, the smell of dying hung in every corner.
How did I get there? Honestly, it was the only place that called me back when I applied for a job.
Admittedly, there are many valid reasons to see nursing homes as neglected places, where death is constantly looming in the air. But what I would like to pass on here is something I learned there: there are just as many valid reasons to see something different. Something else entirely!
As I said before: I was young, and I needed a job. So, I went to apply, and the nursing home was the only one that called me back. I had to agree to show up for work on time. That was pretty much the only condition that was set. I took a course that was offered by the house, on the house, where I learned how to deal with weak people. I thought, no, allow me to correct myself here; made it my motto to treat everyone as if they were my grandma or grandpa.
And that was my first real job. I was entitled to take breaks for lunch or a breather, and health insurance. I was the youngest employee of the institution.
I went to work waking people up, washing them, feeding them by hand, buttoning shirts, cleaning dentures, and making beds. Some people needed a lot of help, others barely. Because I was so young and a novice I got to start in "heaven". That was the room where everyone else wanted to work. The elderly were usually bright, independent, and most of the help they needed consisted of keeping them company. And I loved that. It reminded me of home, and soon I felt at home there.
My workday usually started with turning on the local weather forecast. In the afternoon I put on the favorite soap opera on TV and chatted with people, usually about my grandparents or their grandchildren. I preferred to stay away from Mr. W. because he smelled of old peanuts and sweat (very old) and was always farting. But otherwise, he was a teddy bear.
My grandfather had died a year or two before I started working. He started to shrink and ended up in a hospital bed in the living room: the big C. He did not fight it. When he passed away, my grandmother sank into depression. At the time I could not understand, or maybe I did not want to, that her depressions were brought on by loneliness. I visited less and less, and when she passed away, I was left with shame and guilt. Shame because I associated her age with disconnection and not dignity. And out of that guilt grew my need to treat everyone at work like my own grandparents - but in the right way this time.
There was a sweet old woman whom I would decorate with beaded necklaces every day, while we chattered about boys. When I came to watch her favorite game show with her, she would share her (secret) stash of chocolate with me. There was another tiny little woman who always thought everything was very funny. She couldn't remember anything from moment to moment, but she loved it all and kept smiling. There were, of course, other people as well who could not remember anything. But that did not matter. We laughed about anything and everything, though, and if we had to, we would make up something to laugh about.
Another woman had no teeth. So, all her food had to be pureed. For every meal, we played that we went out to eat in a restaurant where they only had colors on the menu: green, yellow, red, and brown (Peas, carrots, potatoes, and meat.).
Then some people forgot to eat or refused to take food in order to starve themselves. Sometimes when they were in a bad mood, they would throw their tray on the floor and yell at me to eat it myself.
Still, others packed their food and hid it to give to the family for the (grand) children at home.
Once a month I brought takeout. Not that this was allowed by the management, but hey: swearing is not allowed either.
French fries, ketchup, butter and garlic sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs, mozzarella fingers, and we had ourselves a party.
While you may be trained in wiping from front to back, there is no training that prepares you for the psychological toll of watching people suffer until they die.
Well, I said it before, plenty of reasons are valid to see nursing homes as places of sadness. And I must, unfortunately, admit that this perception is well founded. But I should also add that this is not just about a shortage of staff, regulation, and especially the lack of it or funding, but much more about the rejection of vulnerability and inability; especially the inability to see the dignity in people in their most vulnerable moments. In other words, the fear of looking death in the face.
And believe me: dying is a vulnerable act. And a very intimate act. The serenity you see in deathbed scenes in the movie is rarely there. The whole thing is usually considered embarrassing: the stench of sweat, the terror and hallucinations, the wailing, the entrails loosed in the bed. But can you imagine? From your first step when you start walking, you are taught not to trip over your own feet, and here you are: wrapped up in diapers, forced to use a stroller, dreaming away to a time when your mother was the only one who did all this for you. But mom is not here. Where did she go?
You can't remember if you have children. They never come to visit anyway. Shame, of course, and shame repels. Everyone must go, and there is no stopping the breakdown of the body. So: out of sight, out of mind. And everything is fine again...
My grandfather was terrified of being placed in an institution. He did not have to, because my grandmother took care of him when cancer came knocking at the door. But it stayed away from her. My grandmother just got older and older, and lonelier and lonelier.
When I had the time, I'd go to work a little earlier so I could pay a few visits to people who otherwise never had visitors. Short visits, and quiet, in rooms that smelled of cough drops and disinfectant, where the humidifier was on too high, and the hum of the oxygen tank filled the humid air. Sometimes I did not know what to say, and they did not say much themselves, except to wish it were all over, that Death was welcome, and that they were ready. A morbid waiting game to see how long it would take the reaper to accept their invitation and carry them off in his merciful arms.
I thought about leaving often enough. I was tired of lifting and the long hours. I could easily have looked for another job, after all, I was still so young. I didn't even feel like an adult yet.
The smoke break was my favorite. Seriously!
I volunteered (too) often to supervise during the smoking session. Many of the residents were lifelong smokers, a habit that could not be curbed even in a nursing home. After breakfast and dinner, we took the smokers to a glass room, where it stank like hell (how could it be otherwise?). Most of my colleagues hated it, but not me. Fifteen minutes where I did nothing but light cigarettes and make sure no one burned down the nursing home.
I would pass out fires with the institute's lighter, and the residents would begin to relax. Their younger self reappeared. The muscle memory of the ritual transcends dementia. Some forgot the long string of ash at the end of a lit cigarette. But I was there to remind them.
One Christmas I made an exception. Management approved my request, after a brief insistence on my part. My request was granted to spring an old lady out, for a Christmas dinner at my house. My best friend and her brother and his family were there too. We called her Aunt L. on the ward of "heaven". I rented a car because mine hurt to look at, and some colleagues helped her to her carriage.
As I drove home, the sun was setting over the fields in a dazzling display of pink and purple. Aunt L. sat upright next to me almost solemnly, her eyes fixed out the windshield. She soaked up every sight. All that open grassland, with room to run as far as the eye can reach. Massive oaks with curling branches cast long shadows in one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, and I knew that this would be the last sunset Aunt L. would ever see.
After Christmas dinner, we opened presents and listened to Christmas stories from long before I was born.
My friend's brother drove Aunt L. back to the nursing home. We went outside to see her off. A memory flashed back to me, of when I used to leave for school for the week, and I stopped across the street, to see my grandmother's head appear at the window to smile goodbye.
Aunt L. died a week later. I was not there. A colleague called me and put the phone to her ear. I said I was happy to know her and that I enjoyed our time together. I heard a soft rattle and a click. That was our last moment, but I prefer to think of the sunset, which I knew was her last, one she could not take her eyes off as she faded.