When I accepted a job as an activity director in a nursing home, I had grand ideas of what I would accomplish with the residents there. Fresh out of college, sporting my shiny new bachelor’s degree in sociology, I felt ready to change the world.
Real nursing homes, I quickly found out though, are nothing like in the movies. They are filled to the brim with life. And death. And every stage in between.
How exactly, for example, does one prescribe a program of activity for a 92-year-old woman who is almost completely unconscious, almost all of the time?
On the afternoon that I met Ella, bright autumn sunshine filled her room. She was propped up in her bed, and wisps of white hair fairly glowed atop her head. She wore a floral cotton nightgown and her fingernails were painted a cheerful pink.
“Ella?” I called to her.
She groaned slightly, but did not open her eyes. Her room was filled with medical equipment — a cold combination of white plastic and shiny metal.
“Ella,” I repeated patiently (newly graduated young women are oh-so-wise and patient, don’t you know). “My name is Danielle, and I am here to visit you.”
She did not even groan this time.
“Unresponsive,” I made an insightful note on my clipboard, and marked the time.
As I was turning to leave Ella’s room, a framed photograph on the dresser caught my eye. It was a black and white snapshot of a nicely dressed couple standing beside an old-fashioned car. The man squinted in the sun while the woman held a flowered hat to her head with one gloved hand and waved at the camera with the other. She was squinting, but she was smiling, too. Her excited grin was the kind a young woman might wear when she stands on the brink of a grand adventure.
I glanced again at Ella in her bed and then back to the photograph in my hand before returning to my seat at her bedside. Sometimes the most appropriate program of activity, I was beginning to learn, is to have another human being sit beside you and hold your hand.
And then there was Ruth. Ruth was a stout woman in her early eighties who suffered from some form of dementia. As anyone who has ever worked with the elderly knows, at a certain point, no one cares what you call it anymore. A blanket diagnosis of “dementia” conveniently covers all manner of difficult patients. Ruth did have dementia, and yet still she was brilliant. And sarcastic. And angry at the world.
The first time I met Ruth, she was participating in a book club I was to run. I entered the room and introduced myself to the group.
“Well, well,” Ruth sneered, setting down a copy of the resident newsletter featuring my bio. “If it isn’t Danielle Bean, the shining star of St. Anselm College.”
I loved this woman.
And yet Ruth’s anger saddened me. She used it as a shield, and I know it hid a hurting heart. One of the nurses told me that Ruth’s own sons, weary of the verbal abuse, had stopped coming to see her except on holidays and her birthday.
And then there was Muriel. Muriel was a sweet and vulnerable creature, rarely seen without her fox fur wrap. She draped that treasure across her shoulders and shuffled through the hallways in an ancient pair of heels, leaning hard on her walker, with all the dignity of the finest lady you could ever hope to meet.
And there was Doris. Almost daily, Doris would entertain me with the same stories of her first job, her first date, her early marriage, and her husband’s death. She always laughed at the same funny parts and cried on cue at the sad parts. Sobbed, actually. And clung to my sweater sleeve, asking me please not to leave her alone. Please don’t ever leave her alone again.
And at last there was Wilhelmina. On the day I brought my infant daughter in for show and tell, Wilhelmina held my bald-headed, pink-cheeked cherub in her lap, looked her straight in the eyes, and declared, “I would not want to be you . . . and have all that damned living ahead of me.”
And so living was left to the young. Because the young are always up for it.
Though it’s been many years, and I am sure these women I remember so vividly have passed on by now, their memories still haunt me. Because I always wonder if I prayed enough for them, and with them. I always wonder if I did all that God wanted me to do for these suffering souls.
Because nothing ever felt like it was enough.
I hold these women, and dozens of others whose names I have forgotten but whose faces and pain and losses I will never forget, close to my heart. I pray for their souls, but not nearly enough. And so I pray too that where my prayers and others’ efforts fall short, God’s grace will make up the difference.