“POPPPCORNN!” I can still hear him hollering my new name like it was yesterday. It was the early 1990’s and I was working at Modern Care Convalescent Facility as Social Services Director. Every other Saturday, I assisted the Activity staff by playing a movie and passing out popcorn to the residents. This particular Saturday afternoon, the aviary sitting area was full of family members visiting one of our male residents. I tried to slip past the crowd unnoticed to the next room. Suddenly, I heard the resident yell “Popcorn!” at the top of his voice. I turned and looked and he was beaming at me with a huge smile on his face. His smile and laughter were contagious. From that moment on, I became “Popcorn” to him and to his family members. This resident had a history of enjoying life and making others around him smile. He was well-known at the school where he had been custodian (in later years) in the small town where he had resided, as he dearly loved the students and teachers who were there. His life had not been easy as his family had been greatly affected by the Great Depression and a stroke had limited his mobility. Still, there he was making ME smile.
The resident described above is just one of many examples of people who touched my heart during the 10 years I worked at Modern Care Convalescent Facility in Jacksonville. Amazingly, even though my career (initially as a Certified Nursing Assistant and finally as Social Services Director) began many, many years ago, I can still remember the names and even room locations for most of the folks I helped take care of. These folks were not just numbers and ‘tasks’ that needed doing to those of us who worked there. Our facility prided itself on providing top-notch care to residents we considered more like family than residents. For me, the residents provided me with a purpose and I felt a great sense of pride just being there. Sure, the day-shift hours were difficult and providing the very best care meant hard work with little salary (this was long before the days of unions for CNA’s). But the smiles on the faces of the residents and the satisfaction of knowing I had done my best to care for someone’s loved one made it worthwhile. Even today, whenever I run into former co-workers of this facility, they always seem to express a connection and feeling of pride for having worked at Modern Care. My career eventually led me to home settings, the hospital and even subsidized housing where I provided guidance and care to the elderly and (at times) their family members, but none of them could compare.
Another resident that I remember well possessed a spirit that would take you by surprise. This little lady was cordial yet reserved most of the time. After experiencing a stroke, it was difficult for her to walk without assistance. As a result, she wheeled herself around most of the time in a wheelchair by using her own feet on the floor. She spent her days wheeling up and down the hallway or visiting with staff and other residents. On occasion, though, it was as though someone else took over her body. Her face would light up with a gleeful expression and she would cackle like a witch. Her legs would start moving and she would wheel herself around quicker than if she were being pushed from behind. Up and down the hallways she would go. In and out of other rooms as if the little girl inside had taken over. Eventually, she would calm down and return to her old self. What spunk and spirit she had!
You might be asking yourself, What does this have to do with me?” or “Why should I care about old people from the past?” I am sharing these stories for several reasons. First, to reiterate that nursing home facilities are NOT places to warehouse older people like many folks believe. They ARE, however, places full of people like you and I who have distinct personalities and have accomplished many things in their lives. These folks and/or their loved ones had to make the difficult choice for placement after the level of care required outweighed what was available at home. These choices were made with love and genuine concern for the elderly person. (Remember as our generation ages, eventually we, too, may have to face these same difficult choices.)
Second, nursing homes are also full of caring and compassionate workers who truly care about the residents and often consider them to be like family. It takes a special personality to be able to care for someone else and the people providing care in nursing homes are truly special. The nursing and housekeeping staff are ‘on the front line’ of care and often become better acquainted with the residents than even family. At times, they are able to elicit responses not seen by family for a long time. An example of this happened in my own family. My husband’s Great Aunt was a resident at a local nursing home after experiencing multiple strokes. She loved people and in the past had responded in ways uncharacteristic of someone in her 80’s. (She even signed her cards from ‘The ‘Ole Bat’ at times.) As the aging process progressed and she experienced even more strokes, this part of her personality diminished. The spark was frequently gone from her eyes whenever we visited. Unless select staff members were present that is. During the last Christmas we had with her, she surprised us all by sticking out her tongue at one of the orderlies!
Finally, nursing homes and their residents need volunteers and family to consistently visit. Visiting may be difficult at times but it can mean the world to someone eager to hear the latest news about family or even the old neighborhood. Visits do not have to be lengthy either. A short, heartfelt visit is sometimes all that the resident can tolerate. Someone to remind them that they are still important and missed. Or else that someone cares enough to become acquainted and read the daily newspaper or daily worship books to them. Visits can even be held outside in the gardens or near a bird aviary at some facilities. Family heirlooms such as pictures or favorite books can also be brought in and shared providing a conversation starter and connection to the past. A win-win situation!
My head and heart are full of many stories of the elderly that I have had the pleasure of assisting and being with over the years. I have come to deeply appreciate and love the elderly population and what their experiences have taught me about their lives and at times about my own.
Why not make time to share your time and life experiences with an elderly relative or resident at your local nursing home or housing unit? If you do, you too might just discover a new nickname like ‘Popcorn’ that will always make you smile!