When people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a psychologist.” Their eyes grow bigger. They’re curious. Some step forward a bit, lower their voice to a whisper.
“Are you analyzing me?”
“Where’s your office?”
“I don’t have an office. I work in nursing homes. I work with old people.”
They step back. Their eyes grow small, suspicious. “Why?”
Because old people are wonderful. If ever there was a segment of society that western culture has swept under the rug, it’s old folks. They’re the mess we don’t want guests to see when they come to dinner, so we hurry them to the broom closet. Not literally, of course! But we do marginalize them.
The way our world runs these days, (or, more accurately, limps along) it’s almost impossible not to. Everything is technical. Don’t even bother trying to master that, sweetie – the new version comes out Tuesday. There are no more checkout girls, hon, it’s all do-it-yourself scanning. Lovely, no? Want to get from point A to point B? So drive there! This? I ordered it at http://www.lotsajunk.com.
Much of our world is closed to old folks. They may be unaccustomed to or fearful of our current ways. Their dexterity, reflexes, eyesight or hearing may be lacking, or the neurons in their brains aren’t connecting as rapidly or as efficiently as they used to. They move slower, they think slower. They take their time. They contemplate. And today’s world, it seems to me, has no patience for contemplation. No patience for dilly-dallying. Yell your order into the intercom, hurry up and drive through, grab a bag of processed God-knows-what. Eat, pay get out. The light’s green already, lady. Move it!
It saddens me. Not only for them, for us. We’re missing so much.
When I walk into a nursing home, I don’t just see illness, loneliness, or fear. I also see faint smiles that widen in response to mine. I hear a wealth of wisdom and experience. It is a pleasure to listen to their tales, to travel with them back into various parts of their lives, to enter their worlds, to relive yesterday.
I’ve learned about the Great Depression. What it felt like. What people did to stay warm, to eat, to survive. I’ve heard spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat tales about wars. Crawling through trenches, parachuting from airplanes, opening the gates of concentration camps – or walking out of them. I have the privilege of hearing, of seeing, of knowing these worlds. I also learn about cooking, canning, childbirth. I travel back in time, to places that are no longer there, that everyone’s forgotten. I share in the richest of experiences, I hear tales that no book will tell me, no television will show.
Even those who suffer from dementia have something to offer. Perhaps they can’t recall what day it is, or where their room is, or what you told them two minutes ago. But they can tell you about their childhood, their pets, their siblings, their lives. They can share their thrills, their disasters, their laughter, their tears.
And those who’ve lost remote memories? Those who wonder where they are; why the street car hasn’t come yet; if it’s day or night, what that talking box with the colorful pictures could possibly be? You offer them a smile, or a reassuring word, or simply sit in silence and hold their hand. And for a moment, they are calm, content. The corners of their lips curl up. They sit back. Their breathing slows. And you feel so very wonderful, because you know you helped. Only for a moment – but what a wonderful moment it was.
The next time you are in a nursing home, please look past the wheel chairs and the nodding grey heads and the blank stares. Please take the time to get to know someone. Someone wrinkled and slow, someone with white hair and dentures – and a world of experience, wisdom and love the likes of which you may otherwise never know.