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Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Gift for Grandma

Christmas music was playing in the background.  A tall Christmas tree adorned with colorful lights and fine decorations graced the living room next to the fireplace.  Families and friends walked up and down the halls, visiting their loved ones.  It was a wonderful day in the nursing home.  Everybody looked blissful.

“I’m looking for Loraine Smith,” a man stated as he approached the receptionist.

“Beautiful flowers!” the receptionist exclaimed. “We will give them to her.” 

Ms. Smith and a few other residents of the nursing home received flowers for Christmas. Christmas gifts glowed under the magnificent tree. The Christmas party for the residents was to take place that afternoon. 

The residents’ pain and discomfort seem to magically alleviate during the Season, I mused, as I noted the number residents with chronic pain who no longer seemed to complain. 

The celebration and the soothing atmosphere made their aches go away.  Ms. Garner was one of those residents.  She was new to the facility, and although being in a nursing home was not something she wanted, she had adjusted fairly well to her new living arrangements.  Ms. Garner had accepted the fact that her health had deteriorated to the point that her daughter, Lisa, couldn’t take care of her at home. 

Ms. Garner was glad that Lisa came to the facility to visit daily.  But most importantly,  Lisa brought her four year-old little girl, Samantha, with her to see grandma every time.  Ms. Garner loved spending time with the little Samantha.  On a normal day we’d  hear Samantha’s cute voice echoing down the hall:  “Grandma! Grandma!” as she ran toward her room.  Ms. Garner’s face would light up, while she waited for Samantha to run into the room to be snatched up and embraced in a hug.  Ms. Garner had to warn Samantha often about not running down the hall, and to watch out for the wheelchair foot pedals. 

“I don’t want you to trip over the foot pedals”  Ms. Garner repeated often. 

Samantha seemed to care less about the warning.  All she had in mind was seeing her grandma and to tell her about her daily adventures with “Shadow,” her black kitty cat.

“Do you miss Shadow?”  Samantha asked her once. 

“I do.  But I know you are taking good care of him.”  Ms. Garner replied, with a hint of sadness that she gently veiled with a smile.

The Christmas party started.  Ms. Garner seemed content with Lisa and little Samantha sitting next to her.  A choir from a local church sang delightful Christmas carols.  Santa Claus walked around, greeting and hugging everybody which amused Samantha tremendously. That—and the pastries being passed  around on green and red trays which she helped herself to freely. 

“Samantha, you've eaten too many cookies already!”  Lisa exclaimed as she caught her reaching for another treat. 

“Let her have one last cookie; there’s plenty,”  Ms. Garner interceded, hugging little Samantha who had now sat on grandma’s lap. 

The Christmas presents were passed around.  Samantha helped her grandma open her gifts.  Clothing, a bed throw, a set of lotion and perfume, and a stuffed animal were piled on a chair as Samantha ripped off another shiny gift wrap. 

The Christmas party was over.  Lisa and little Samantha were getting ready to leave. 

“Samantha, aren’t you forgetting about a present you brought for grandma?”  Lisa asked with an intriguing look, arching her left eyebrow.

“Huh?” Samantha looked, puzzled. 

“Look in your pocket,” she reminded her.

“Oh!” Samantha exclaimed loudly, as she dug in her winter coat and produced a black dusty rock, almost of the size of her fist. 

“Grandma, this is for you!”

“Ah, a rock!” 

“No, grandma, it’s a pet rock, Shadow’s brother!”  Samantha placed the rock in Ms. Garner’s shaky hand.  Her gentle fingers, afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, embraced the rock with tenderness and love. 

“Thank you, my darling...”  Tears rolled down her face. “This is the most precious Christmas gift I’ve ever received!”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Forever Elvis

I heard music playing as I was walking down the East hall.  I stopped for a moment to listen.

♫ Why can't you see
What you're doin' to me
When you don't believe a word I say?

We can't go on together
With suspicious minds ♫

 Elvis!  I thought, as I opened my eyes widely.

“Where is the music coming from?” I asked Julia, a nurse assistant who was walking by.

“From Ms. Reid’s room,” Julia replied.  “She loves Elvis.”

“I like Elvis too!” I exclaimed, grinning. 

The music was captivating. It carried Elvis’ delightful voice through the air, a wisp one does not want to miss.   

I can’t just walk by!  I relented as I turned around, and headed directly toward Ms. Reid’s room.

Except for Elvis’ crooning, Ms. Reid’s room was a place of solace, decorated with Elvis pictures and ornaments.  A large CD player sat on her bedside table.  Ms. Reid was sitting in her recliner, staring at the ceiling, apparently captivated by a daydream. 

As I quietly approached Ms. Reid I caught her attention, briefly.  Her Alzheimer’s dementia had advanced to the point that she often had difficulty communicating with others and couldn’t focus most of the time. 

Except when she heard one word: Elvis.

“I see you like Elvis,”  I commented.

“Uh?” she murmured, looking at me with some apprehension.  I felt like an intruder who had just disturbed her pleasant thoughts.  Elvis broke into another song.

“That’s a beautiful song,”  I said.

Ms. Reid’s smile returned. 

“Can you show me the Elvis book you have there?”  I pointed toward a large book that she had laid on her table.  A magnificent photo of Elvis graced the cover.

“Yes!”  She eagerly replied.

I handled the book to her. Her delicate hands held it in such a way that it was obvious the book was one of her most treasured possessions.  She started to flip through the thick pages.

Ms. Reid had very few words to express, but her eager eyes and her smile told her story.  Somehow, Elvis’ songs rekindled in her warm memories of loving and charming times of her past.  

I noticed the book contained information and pictures.  At the end of the book, right before Ms. Reid closed it, I became intrigued by a small detail I spied. I noticed that the last two or three pages of the book had been ripped out.  Ms. Reid seemed unaware of it.  I frowned, and promptly switched my focus to her bright blue eyes staring at me.  I smiled and encouraged further conversation about other items in the room. She had a tote with Elvis’ photo imprinted on it.  An Elvis poster adorned a wall. 

I left Ms. Reid in good spirit.  And so was I, except for my curiosity about the missing pages of the book. 

Months later, I thought of Ms. Reid when my husband and I spent a weekend in Memphis.  We visited Graceland, Elvis’ home.

It was a magnificent tour.  I felt vibrant while walking throughout Elvis’ home, looking at his fancy suits, his photos, his awards.

His soul was there. His talent was still alive. 

The “Meditation Garden” was the last stop on the tour. That was Elvis’ grave.  A feeling of emptiness embraced me.  I turned around and left the area quickly. 

After returning from my trip, I happened to meet Ms. Reid’s daughter at the nursing home. I enjoyed telling her that I had thought of her mother during my visit to Graceland.

“Her obsession with Elvis is really something new,” her daughter said.  “One day she suddenly became an Elvis fan.” 

“It seems to make her happy.” I replied. 

“Definitely,” her daughter exclaimed.  “She can get very agitated sometimes and Elvis’ music calms her down.”

“I’ve seen that,” I expressed. “I am glad it works out that way, but I have what may seem to be a curious question. I noticed that the last two or three pages of her Elvis book are missing.”

“Oh!” her daughter exclaimed and laughed.  “My mother doesn’t know Elvis is dead. We don’t want her to know. So we tore off the pages that referred to his death and burial site.”

Of course! I realized, open-mouthed. I recalled the sadness that struck me at the Meditation Garden. 

“It makes perfect sense!” I said, as I shook my head. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Piano Teacher

“Are you going out to lunch?”  my co-worker, Gina, asked as she poked her head into my office. 

“No.  I have about twenty resident assessments to complete,” I replied, unable to mask my obvious stress.  

“Do you want me to bring you something?”  Gina offered.  

“No, thanks. I‘m not hungry.”  I glanced at my coffee cup.  “I have plenty of coffee to get me by.” 

“You must have coffee running in your veins!”  Gina exclaimed and laughed. 

Fridays were always stressful days.  Trying to meet report deadlines, chasing down documentation, and completing residents computerized information known as MDSall meant skipping lunch and spending a great deal of time on the computer.  Minimum Data Sets (MDS) are part of the U.S. federally mandated process for clinical assessment of all residents in Medicare or Medicaid certified nursing homes.  

After Gina left, I concentrated on my project.  My mind had no place for other thoughts or interruptions.  I needed to complete the MDS assessments. 

As I tried to maintain my focus, I found myself distracted, not by the blare of the phone ringing, or a person disturbing me with questions, but by the sound of music: piano music.  I struggled between trying to keep my focus on the reports and my curiosity about where the music was coming from.  It took me a few minutes to finally realize that the music came from the dining room.  Then, remembered that a volunteer always visited the nursing home on Fridays.  Lucy played the piano while the residents were having lunch.  

My attempt to stay focused was unsuccessful.  I love piano music.  Since I was a little girl, I always wanted to learn how to play piano.  Today, it remains as an unfinished dream.  

I stood up and headed toward the dining room.  I had to see Lucy’s beautiful and disciplined fingers dancing on the piano keys, commanding the hammers to strike the strings and release an orchestra of music.  I had to indulge myself in the majestic music.  
I walked throughout the dining room.  I observed the residents as I listened to the music. They seemed to like it as well.  Alice, a new resident, especially appeared to be captivated by the music.  With the mouth slightly open and her eyes centered on the piano,  Alice looked blissful.  

I am not the only one enchanted by the piano music,  I mused. 

I returned to my office to continue working on my assignment.  Later that evening, before I left work, I decided to visit with Alice.  

Alice was sitting in her wheelchair in the hall, observing people, and as though in a meditative state of mind.  

“Alice, you look quite relaxed,” I said, as I drew closer to her. 

“It’s been a nice day,”  she said, smiling.  “Did you see the lady playing the piano today? 

“Yes, I did.  That’s Lucy.  Since she retired a year ago, she volunteers to play the piano,”  I explained.  

“When she finished playing the piano, she came to my table, and asked me if I was Alice Chambers. I told her “yes, why?”  She then asked me if I remembered her, which I didn’t.  She said I was her piano teacher when she was a young girl.” 

“What?”  My jaw dropped. “Really?”  I was astonished.  

“I taught piano for a while, before I went to work for a bank.”  Alice said, with excitement. “I used to have four or five students who came to my house for lessons on my piano.” 

“How interesting, Alice!” I exclaimed.  

“Lucy said I look the same.”  Alice grinned.  “I honestly didn’t recognize her at first.  She was just a teenager back then,”  Alice said, shaking her head in remembrance of those days.  

“Do you mean it’s been over fifty years since you taught Lucy how to play the piano?”  I asked, with evident amazement. 

“Hmm... yes, more than fifty years!”  Alice said.  “Who would think that that young girl who cried when she missed a note would now be a fantastic pianist, delighting me in my new home?

“Alice, you are harvesting the seeds you planted fifty years ago. The seeds of music and talent you sowed.” 

Alice smiled.  I left her deep in her reflections of teaching young piano students.  I wished I were one of them. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The North Unit

“Where's Ms. Peterson?" I asked Becky, a nurse aide who was assigned to that floor. "She is not in her room."

She was moved to the North Unit,” Becky replied.  

Residents with advanced dementia and unable to ambulate were typically moved from the front halls to the North Unit. The North Unit was a smaller hall toward the back of the facility.  There, the residents were presented with activities and routines more suitable to their mental and physical declining conditions.  These residents needed assistance with feeding during meals, a lot of one-on-one attention and, in essence, total care.  

“Have you worked at the North Unit lately?” I asked. 

“No.  And I hope they keep me in this hall,” Becky said, with unbridled aggravation thick in her tone of voice.  

It was not a secret that most of the nurse aides took strides to avoid being assigned to the North Unit.  

“It’s a very hard hall,” Becky expressed, and turned, heading toward a resident’s room. 

I shook my head, annoyed.  Being a nurse aide was indeed a hard job, from what I had observed.  But the well-being of the residents should take precedence over the difficultly of the job and what an employee thinks is, or is not, a suitable job for the caregiver.  If working as a nurse aide, a nurse, or a social worker in a nursing home festered unhappiness, then they were in the wrong place to begin with. 

I headed to the North Unit as I needed to see Ms. Peterson.  

As I walked throughout the North Unit everything looked as it should be until I saw a new face. The face of a young man.  He appeared to be a new nurse aide.  I had never seen him before.  

While going about his duties, he looked up and smiled.  “Hi” the young man said to me. “How are you?” 

He has personality, I mused. 

“Are you a new CNA? “ I asked. 

“Yes, I was hired two weeks ago.” He replied.  

“I’m Doris, the social worker.” 

“My name is Andrew.”  
“Strange,” I said, “you have been here for two weeks and I haven’t noticed it.” 

“I have been working night shifts,” Andrew said. “This is my first day shift.” 

“Oh, that explains it!” 

Andrew told me that he attended college, and was enrolled in the pre-medical program. 

He looked like a smart and goal-driven youth.  

“How do you like working in the North Unit?” I asked.  

“I love it,” Andrew exclaimed. I was surprised to hear that. It was not a response I had ever heard from the other aides, both in and out of the unit.  

“Do you really?” I asked, casting a doubtful look from the corners of my eyes.  

“These residents need more care,” he said earnestly.  “So I am learning a lot from them.” 

I was afraid I wasn’t following him.  I frowned.  

Recognizing my confusion, he continued, “If I am going to be a doctor, I want to get to know people with conditions that need more attention and care.” 

“You like the challenge, Andrew?” 

“Hm... I’d say, I like the opportunity!” 

I couldn’t believe the lesson I was learning from a young man.  Andrew was about 19 years old, and he was already on the right path to not only being a doctor, but becoming a good doctor.  He was humble and caring, reaching out for the sickest residents. 

And learning from them.  

“By the way, I am looking for Ms. Peterson,” I said.  “I heard she was moved into this unit.” 

“She was brought in this morning.  I already met her. She is in the activities room, in music therapy” 

I could see that Andrew knew each of his residents thoroughly.  I was certain that Ms. Peterson was happier now.  

I saw Andrew only one more time after that day, as he continued working night shifts.  Six months later, I heard that he left the facility as he was offered a scholarship by an out of state university.  

But even with him being gone, I continued to hear several people talk about Andrew, about his positive outlook and positive demeanor with the residents. 
Andrew left his imprint on everyone’s hearts.  

And I was certain that the North Unit would be in Andrew’s memories. 

His treasured memories, I hoped.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Answer

“A reporter from the local newspaper is here to see Ms. Hicks,”  the receptionist announced.

“What newspaper? Why?”  I inquired, unsure why Ms. Hicks would be having that type of visitor. 

Ms. Hicks was a fairly new resident in the nursing home.  She was one of the most social and fun ladies in the facility.  Her sense of humor and witty conversations delighted every one that spent time with her.

“The reporter said that he had arranged the interview with Ms. Hicks' daughter,  who he says is on her way here.”

I rushed to the lobby to meet the reporter.  He explained that he was assigned to write an article about “The Convent,” a historical building in town that had recently been refurbished and converted into a convention center. 

The Convent had served as an orphanage in the 1930’s during the Great Depression.  Many parents abandoned their children due to their poverty.  Jobless parents with children starving, and worse, with no home. 

The newspaper had tracked down Ms. Hicks as one of The Convent alumni graduates. 

“Ms. Hicks is some sort of celebrity,”  some of the other residents gossiped. 
She truly was a celebrity.

A few days later, Ms. Hicks interview and photos were published in the newspaper.  The article became the talk of the residents and staff, and Ms. Hicks became even more popular than she was before. 

One day I noticed that Ms. Hicks seemed quiet and reclusive.  I decided to check if everything was okay. 
“May I visit with you, Ms. Hicks,” I asked as I entered her room.  She motioned for me to come in. 

“I am impressed about your experience at The Convent,”  I said.  “I know you already gave a great deal of details about what it was like living in there,  but tell me, what do you think about having that experience?

Ms. Hicks began telling me about how her father died at age 40, in a car accident, and how her mother had to take care of her seven children.  Not having a home to raise them, a menial job, and little education, she had no option other than to take her children to The Convent. Four boys and three girls.  Mrs. Hicks mentioned that the boys and girls lived in total separated quarters, and never met. 

“I had the chance to be with my sisters.  I was the youngest one. We had as much fun as we could, but it was hard times.  Especially when my older sisters reached the age they had to leave The Convent.”

Ms. Hicks never saw her brothers from the time she entered The Convent until she was 16 and left the institution. Then she and her siblings reunited. 

“It was one of the happiest days in my life,” she said.  Her eyes became teary.

“And what about your mother?  Did you ever see her?” I asked.

“She visited us once a year.”

“Once a year?”

“She lived 180 miles away, and she didn’t have the money or the transportation to come and see us more often.”

Ms. Hicks told me that her mother had to go and live with other relatives in order to survive.

“We all survived. We got a good education at The Convent.  We worked hard, and learned work ethics.  We grew up with Christian principles,” she proudly expressed.

Ms. Hicks had a successful career in the business field. She had a happy marriage, and was proud of her well-educated and loving children.

Ms Hicks had recently become a widow, but managed  to live independently afterward.  She was at the nursing home for rehabilitation after falling and sustaining a hip fracture.  Her determination and will power were exceptional despite her 83 years of age.  

“One thing I don’t understand,” she said, with soft voice. “All my siblings are deceased.  I am the last one. The only one alive.  Why am I the one to live this long?”

“There must be a reason, Ms. Hicks. You probably have the answer, if you think about it,” I said. “Maybe you’re here to inspire all of us and share your story.  I am sure the newspaper story touched  many other people.  You are an example for others to follow. You are the most courageous and tenacious person I’ve recently met.”

A high pitched voice interrupted our conversation.  “Grandma!” Ms. Hicks’ great-grandson jumped on her lap and hugged her. 

I heard the steps of other people approaching the room door. 

Ms. Hicks glanced at me, with a big smile.

“I think I just found the answer!” she said, as she embraced her great-grandson.