I take for granted my ability to remove the polish from my own toes when they begin to look less-than-pristine. I take for granted the fact that I am able to lock my bathroom door when I require privacy since I prefer it when people don’t walk in on me while I sit – vulnerably – on the toilet. I take for granted that I eat what I wish to eat, when I wish to eat it. If something affixed to my wall is askew, it needn’t drive me crazy, because I simply reach up with my strong arms and shoulders and I adjust it to please me best. When I’m tired, I sleep without being wakened over and over again by strangers, who though they wish me well, disrupt my peace of mind each time they come in, poking and prodding and giving me yet more pills to swallow. I make my coffee just the way I like it and I don’t have to stretch my graciousness to accommodate the differing preferences of twenty or so others who feel just as strongly about it as I do. I don’t have to depend upon the good graces of near strangers to ensure that my basic needs are met each day. I remember where my kitchen is. I know how many children I have and it doesn’t stretch me to remember each of their names.
You’ll gather that my thoughts dwell once again on the senior’s home – my Tuesday morning place. I’ve disappointed myself in my response to going there each week. The altruism that I assumed would fuel me leaked away long ago. It turns out that I’m not nearly as altruistic as I had hoped. And not nearly so unconditionally giving. If I’m honest with myself and with you, I must concede that I liked the idea of me volunteering in a senior’s home quite a lot more than I’ve enjoyed the reality. The reality, I’ve found, is very smelly. It involves at times the fruitless consoling of grown women weeping about why their husbands would place them and leave them here, in this place. It involves being used – and blatantly so – by seniors who sin now as they’ve sinned their whole lives and who consider themselves and not me in their shrill requests. I’m not sure why I expected things to be otherwise for now that I’m here, living out the reality, it all makes perfect sense because we’re dealing with people. I need not tell you that people are flawed, even when they’re at the top of their game and their toileting privacy is still inviolate.
Here is sampling of what my local senior’s home is not:
Typically, the seniors I visit with each week don’t look like 50-year-olds with prematurely white hair and they don’t spend a great deal of time over glasses of white wine with their still sophisticated spouses. They rarely dance, despite what some of the ads for these kinds of homes would have you believe. In contrast, life there looks a lot more like this:
There are a lot of sleeping people whom you feel loathe to disrupt, but you know if you don’t, they may not have another visitor that week. There are a lot of deeply unpleasant smells wafting about as you walk up and down the hallways. You find yourself judging the absent families of these dear, old people less and less because you quickly come to see that visiting with them isn’t akin to a sunny walk in a beautifully landscaped park. Sometimes, if they feel chiselled down by enough cumulative pain or discomfort, they may swear in general or call you a bitch, specifically. They may ask accusingly where you’ve been if you miss a week because you had the flu. Some of them will tell you dismissively when you bring in last months’ Oprah magazine to share that they don’t! like! black! people! Some will order you around as though they’re drill sergeants and you do as they ask because you can see that it makes them feel better. You wish you were a better person, though, than the one here today who feels something less kind-hearted than just a delicate stab of pity for said drill sergeant.
On a good day, you’ll see some of this:
The quality of care at our senior’s home is very good. Patient people flit around, ministering to the myriad felt needs as best they can. Most of the people employed here seem to genuinely care about the seniors in their care. I have felt humbled to witness devoted nurses lovingly caress the wrinkled cheeks of ladies in dire need of some physical touch. Last week, when a dear lady fell off the seat of her walker, where she was perched, helping to fold laundry, two caregivers rushed immediately to her side. Flanking her, they carefully brought her up off the floor and hovered over her conscientiously until they were certain that she was ok. When I chatted with her afterwards, I was humbled again when she told me that she hated to watch other people working when she herself was not helping.
I have found now that I am no longer naively uninformed about the realities of this place that there is still joy to be found here. The bubble of joyful good nature in the middle of a life wracked with pain is all the more lovely in light of seeing what it takes to let that joy take hold. I see this kind of thing a lot. And is it this now that fuels me and not my own imagined benevolence.