10 Things I learnt about Life from working in a Nursing Home
Getting old ain’t for the faint hearted. Someone famous said that, credited to Bette Davis I believe but it really is very tough work for many. Decaying and weakening body. Illnesses. Diseases. Dementia. Weak heart. Failing memory. Any number of problems. Even losing limbs and the ability to walk. All the while, the wall of death in your future. That’s tough. Not everyone can handle it.
They’ve seen their parents die. Their siblings. Their friends. In some cases, their partner and even their children. Remember that. They’ve done it very tough. If we’re lucky enough to live long, we’ll have to go through all of that too. You grow accustomed to death but it always hurts and some you never get over.
Sharing your time with an older person, even a couple of minutes, can make a big difference to their day. Even if they have dementia, and you can make them smile, then you’ve done something worthwhile. They definitely do appreciate it. They don’t mind if you hold their hand or give them a hug. For many, it’s the only genuine physical contact they have and that’s something we all need. It made me realise how important touch is.
My photo - my hand - 2015
Older people have incredible stories to tell. Even if their lives weren’t particularly exciting, they still have lived through many adventures, loves, life and deaths. They have witnessed a time you will never see. They have seen some incredible world events from the perspective of having been around when it happened, even if they didn’t directly witness it. They will still be able to provide a fresh perspective. Listen to them!
Kids and animals. No matter if an older person has dementia or none at all, for some reason, they always brighten up when a young child or an animal is close by. It’s quite remarkable. It brings them to life. They just want to hug and squeeze them, like the archetypal Grandma that the child squirms away from.
Not all older people are wise. Some people are able to live their entire lives focused on themselves and have not taken stock on the philosophies of life that many do. But not all. Older people are not always nice. Some are just mean spirited and probably always have been. Being old doesn’t make you automatically nice. Having said that, some behavioural issues are brought about by dementia, or the simple fact that they know they are more than likely going to die there. That’s a heavy burden to have to live with and they can get quite depressed. That means sometimes lashing out. Yet, some are just arseholes. As in everyday life.
Older people don’t need to be pandered to, or talked down to like a child. Even if they are in a weakened physical and mental state, treating them like children is an insult. If they have advanced dementia, then they may have regressed to a child-like state. That’s different. When I worked in a nursing home and was involved in the providing of entertainment, the guidelines were to keep it PG Rated. These people have seen more life than you and I put together. They’ve laid witness to violence, seen the most amazing and the most devastating of situations, both personal and global. They've probably had more sex than you. Give them some respect, and treat them as equals, at least, not a child.
A short video poem I made in 2015
A nursing home is a unique environment, but at the end of the day, it is society in a microcosm with all the varied types of people that you find anywhere. You can’t make a judgement on people. We are all unique, and so are they. There might be ten people in a unit. Culturally, they may share the same background. But they will all be different. Often people forget that.
Nursing Homes are called God’s Waiting Room. It can be a very depressing place to visit. It depends on the individual. It depends on the type of care provided. Naturally, when visiting, one’s thoughts turns to oneself. Could I live here? What if I get that old? I’ve heard many people say, I’ll kill myself before allowing that to happen. It’s a natural thing to say. Many do say it. Even some of the people who end up there. The reality is, once you’re there, it’s very hard to achieve that outcome. However, I’ve seen people have decent quality of life there, and then ultimately pass quite peacefully. While others linger for years, miserable. Many, oblivious to it, thankfully. You just don’t know how you’re going to end up.
I have mixed feelings on ending up in a place like that. But I do know that a positive attitude can make such a difference. One man I knew there was so inspiring. He said yes to every event. He just went along with whatever was happening. He tried to keep as active as possible. His attitude was astounding. Life is as good or as bad as you make it, whether as an old person or young. I imagine he had led a very good life. It was reflected in his adult children and grandchildren who frequently came to visit him. This was a good man. His simple approach to life kept him happy and it kept him alive. He was an inspiration.
(not him in the photo).
Getting older can be difficult. Being elderly can be very difficult. But if you’ve made it that far, you’re doing well. In fact, you’ve done fantastically, something I often told them. So many don’t make it that far. This notion that we’ll all live to eighty five is a farce, sold to us via advertising and companies that compete for our dollars. And governments who want us to keep working, promising some fantasy sunset life after retirement, the age which they keep moving up. (Currently 67 in Australia). You know people who died young. And the older you get, the more people get sick and die. We are living longer, but we still need to appreciate every day we have. It could be our last.