For whatever reason, God always seems to think I need more old people in my life.
Throughout my time as a working adult, I’ve had many variations on this conversation with (at?) Him: “Oh, so you’re pulling out this 'old people' gag again. Hahahahaha. But this time, when you say 'job at a nursing home,' you must really mean a publishing house, or a theatre company, or maybe a widget factory, or really absolutely anywhere else. Right....? Oh.”
My first real job, beyond babysitting and such, was the summer before I started my freshman year of college. It was at a nursing home, on the Alzheimer’s unit, and it remains the most difficult job I’ve ever had. Yes, that includes working in a call center answering questions about why people didn’t receive their unemployment benefits. (Okay, maybe it’s a tie.)
My shift at the nursing home usually started at 6:30 am, so I would wake up at 5:30, put on my oversized beige polo, and bike the five miles to the facility.
During the course of a day I could usually expect to be hit, bitten, screamed at, and doused in bodily fluids. But the toughest part was looking into a resident's eyes as she groaned and flailed and wondering what nightmare she was seeing in front of her instead of someone young and scared trying to help her take a shower. For someone who grew up thinking of my identity as primarily intellectual, it was really difficult not to get sucked right in to this nightmare.
The other aide that I usually worked with was crass, tattooed, and spent a lot of time on her phone breaking up and getting back together with her boyfriend. But she had a way of dealing with the residents that was, though a little rough, somehow humanizing. She knew all their names and personalities intimately, and would alternately tease and scold them as she deftly completed their cares. The fact that she didn't allow the residents, even in their state of complete helplessness, to give way to self-pity or self-indulgence was a sign of respect and gave them a piece of their dignity back.
She was patient with me, too, and certainly never rolled her eyes at my timidity, though she did take the tough love approach with me along with the residents. Watching her made me take a hard look at myself and my attitude when actually confronted with concrete, bodily human misery, when actually given the opportunity to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. In fact, she may have been my first exposure to virtue outside the rigid confines where I'd been accustomed to look for it.
My next job with seniors was after I graduated from college. It was at an arm of a large non-profit that was contracted with the county government to provide in-home support services for the elderly. The hell that was this job probably merits its own post. For now, suffice it to say that I got to see first-hand both the tremendous need for assistance to low-income seniors and how even the best-run aid program can be easily hijacked by lying and manipulative people looking to take advantage of their vulnerability.
Now I work in an administrative position at what's called a CCRC, or Continuing Care Retirement Community. My office is located in the independent living part of the facility, so my contact with residents is generally limited to a chat in the hallway with those who are comparatively healthy, physically and mentally. Because of our price points and the socio-economic group we target in our marketing, most of our residents also have money and families that give the occasional crap about their well-being.
I have sometimes felt guilty about leaving a job where I was specifically working with the poor to take a job making sure rich white people get their trips to the symphony and enough low-fat options on the dinner menu. But there is more to it than that. For one thing, my workplace identifies itself as a Catholic institution, which means there's plenty for a vineyard-laborer to do to encourage support for this identity and what it means.
Even beyond that, I'm starting to realize that care of the elderly is necessary and important work. Getting old means a new weakness and vulnerability that all the money and family support in the world can’t prevent, and eventual preparation for and acceptance of death. For many of those in the industry, serving those who are facing these challenges is absolutely a labor of love. As long as God keeps sending me old people, I'll keep trying to follow this example.