Please don’t call me an “empty nester.” That term must have been invented by some marketing representative trying to sell retirement homes. I despise the phrase as it implies we have pushed the ones we love away as they begin their lives and that we never have the pleasure of participating in the new worlds they’ve created.
Though my children no longer live in our home, my husband and I enjoy their frequent visits. We have deep relationships with a host of friends and love having their company. There is nothing empty in that. I prefer to think of our lives as a series of circles, rather like the ripples in a pond when touched by drops of rain. Out of each starting point, a circle of events evolves, flows outward, touches someone, sending forth another series of ripples, ever moving, ever changing.
Though my life is very full, I confess, there are times when I feel ripple-less. It was this feeling of wanting to stir something up that brought me to Sunnydale Nursing Home as a volunteer. After reading more than a few stories on the horrors of various homes for the elderly, I wanted to see for myself. I was going undercover to expose these hidden injustices, very much like Geraldo in his early years.
My volunteer project at Sunnydale involved reading to the residents, a perfect cover to watch and observe, while doing something I love to do. My husband chuckled when I asked to borrow his tiny digital camera to document the evil I was about to expose. He was really against the idea of going anywhere to snoop, believing that I could do more good being positive instead of looking for the worst. Still, he was supportive and patiently showed me the wonders of digital photography.
I was ready for my first day armed with a camera, a toteful of books, and good intentions. As I walked out of my front door, the darling man I married said, “Go get ‘em Sweetie. Call me if you get caught and I’ll try to arrange bail.” I could still hear him laughing as I slammed the door.
My first month at the nursing home was uneventful. I was surprised to find a thoughtful and caring staff, genuinely interested in the well-being of the residents. In this short time, I met a variety of the more lucid, temporary patients receiving short-term care. My first assignment was with Robert, a former executive, who’d broken his hip. He didn’t really need anyone to read to him, but he liked having the company of a woman. He was funny and flirtatious, not believing that I was both happy and married. I’m convinced he had a few Playboy magazines stashed in his nightstand. I also suspect he once pretended to drop a pencil so he could take a good look at my bottom as I searched the area around his bed.
The reading program became quite popular with the residents and we eventually organized a literary hour for the patients able to leave their rooms. A circle of men and women, some in wheelchairs, others with their walkers in view, gathered for this simple pleasure. I read passages from their favorite books or poems. Some would close their eyes, perhaps transported to another time, a memory. Others would mouth familiar words lovingly. Even the staff seemed to enjoy these serene moments. I’ve always believed in the power of words, though I was elevated to another level of appreciation when I saw the effect their beauty can have on the weariest of souls.
Something in me softened. I no longer wanted to be Geraldo and asked if I could work with a resident who needed extra attention. A nurse told me about Mary O’Connor.
Mary was in the Compassionate Care area of the nursing home, reserved for Alzheimer’s patients. A victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s with a tendency to wander, her family feared for her safety after she went for a walk and could not find her way home. They loved her dearly but were unable to give her the intensive care she needed without sacrificing their livelihoods - too much to risk in a bad economy. They found her the very best care they could afford. Though she had visitors every weekend, the staff could see the weekdays were difficult for her. Perhaps, I would be willing to help? I gladly accepted though I was warned my visits might seem fruitless as Mary also suffered from severe depression.
The Compassionate Care wing was cheerfully decorated with bright walls and colorful posters. Each patient’s door had a sign to code extra care that might be required, falling stars for some who were frail, needing help with balance; photographs for wanderers, who might flee if someone at the front desk was inattentive.
I gently knocked on the door to a private room filled with plants and comfortable furniture. Mary was sitting in a chair looking out of the window and turned her attention to me. Her gray hair was impeccably styled with soft curls that framed her face. She was wearing a pink dress that gave her skin a youthful glow, though her lost, lonely gaze confirmed a disease taking its toll. I introduced myself and asked if I could spend a little time with her. Maybe I could do a bit of reading? She nodded yes, pointed to a chair. I sensed that she was being polite and tolerating my presence. A little unnerved, I dug through my book collection and picked out a few funny stories from The Rescue of Miss Yaskell, hoping to keep our time together light and unthreatening. I read for about an hour, with no response.
I was discouraged but returned the following day, then for two months of following days, reading the works of different authors and poets. Unlike the other patients, Mary could not or would not give me a reaction. I couldn’t tell if my being there mattered at all. I decided to give up and concentrate on expanding the literary group, thinking that might be a better use of my extra time.
On a day I was feeling particularly flustered, I’d driven to visit Sunnydale listening to a rendition of Be Thou My Vision. I am not a particularly religious person, yet this down-to-earth, imperfect version of the song inspires me. I was still humming when I walked into Mary’s room.
I sang, “Riches I need not, nor man’s empty praise.”
She looked at me and followed in a lovely clear voice…
“Thou my inheritance through all of my days,
Thou and Thou only, the first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art…”
She finished the song, her tone and pitch so perfect that nurses gathered outside the room to hear, then she turned her eyes back toward the window, as if nothing had happened. I was thunderstruck and filled with shame. What arrogance impelled me to think that reading would have the same impact on her as the other residents? Why hadn’t I taken the time to find out more about her?
The next day, I purchased a few songbooks and asked if I could take Mary to the activity room. I sang and played piano horribly. She didn’t seem to mind and joined in when she recognized the song. Her eyes regained a spark as she sang, though the vacant look returned when the music ended and I walked her back to her room. Each day, I brought an MP-3 player downloaded with all styles of music. I made CD’s filled with the songs that she responded to. The music she loved became a part of her day.
I had the pleasure of meeting the O’Connor family. They were good people caught in a situation that would not have a happy ending. I think they may have forgotten about Mary’s love for music. This awakened memory delighted them. When her favorite CD’s played, they sang along with her. When she sang, they were joyous. They cried when the music stopped and she was lost to them once again, taken by the disease beginning to control her a little more each day. I want to believe that I helped them, though I wonder if seeing glimpses of her as she once was, hurt them even more.
I went to Sunnydale hoping to cause some ripples. I guess I did, though not in the way I expected. I continue my work with the literary group, with music and art groups now added to the program. The premise was newsworthy enough to be shown on a local television station and was soon adopted by other senior residences.
My experience with Mary and her family touched me very deeply. I have started to think about the things that bring me pleasure. I try to recall if I’ve mentioned them, if my family will know what is most important. What would happen if…
In the quiet hours of each evening, I work on a book of memories, filled with notes about my favorite things. I’m making one to give to each member of my family. If I am ever lost and need to be found, I would like someone to have a guide.
Nina works full-time as a paralegal, part-time as a fledgling writer and has found her happily-ever-after in a little town in North Carolina.