“Are you the Social Worker?” A deep voice interrupted my train of thoughts as I was sitting at my desk, reading through a resident’s medical chart. I raised my head, fixing my eyes on a slender, disheveled man standing by my office door, holding a coffee mug.
“Yes, I am,” I answered with an indiscreet expression of surprise.
“I’m Mike. I came here last night from the ER.”
“Oh, hi Mike. I was actually getting ready to see you. As a matter of fact, I am here reading your medical information.” I welcomed him and asked him to have a seat.
Mike was in his early sixties, younger than the average age of our residents in the nursing home. While most of the residents were wheelchair bound, Mike walked the halls at a steady pace. He almost looked like a visitor rather than a resident.
Mike was my very first resident coming to my office to meet me. Normally, as the Social Worker, I am the one rushing to meet my new residents. I felt a bit ashamed, but I admired his initiative.
Mike sat comfortably. He was pleasant and polite. His hands curled around his coffee mug, taking small sips during our conversation. As Mike smiled, I noticed the poor condition of his teeth. His long hair and beard looked unwashed and unkept. I confirmed what I suspected—Mike was homeless.
I started to get worried about the nursing home not being the most suitable place for Mike to spend the rest of his years. I had observed homeless people going into nursing homes mainly to find shelter and food. But without having a medical condition that requires 24-hour care, they should be in a more independent-living environment.
At times, I felt uneasy seeing Mike restlessly walking throughout the halls, and often going into the dining room to refill his coffee mug. A nurse recognized Mike from another facility, stating that he was gone several times, finding out later that he was “looking for drugs.” My concerns almost turned into paranoia as I started feeling overprotective about our frail elderly residents.
We closely supervised Mike for a few days. I have no doubt he was aware of it. But Mike surprised everyone.
He was kind and good-hearted. He was always cooperative with staff and respectful with the other residents. He even started to make friends with them.
“This is not a motel!” A staff member grumbled one day, looking at Mike comfortably laying on a couch, watching TV, sipping from his coffee mug.
I shook my head as I thought about how easily we judge others. Yet I went back to worry about Mike’s future. We wouldn’t want to send him back to the streets, or to a shelter, but he was certainly too high functioning to be in a nursing home.
Amazingly, the answer came from Mike himself.
“I need help,” he expressed weeks later.
I sensed sincerity in his words. All my fears about Mike vanished. I knew a history of alcoholism and drug addiction was a struggle, based on my experience with patients in similar condition. Unfortunately, many of them chose to go back to the old path of addiction and deterioration and, ultimately, of death. But this time I felt optimistic about Mike's desires to overcome his situation.
And, as if the stars were lined up on Mike’s favor, one unexpected visitor came to my office to deliver good news.
“Are you the Social Worker?,” A man in his early seventies stood at my office door.
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m Roger, Mike’s brother.” He stepped forward, extending his right hand to me. “I live out of state, and came to help Mike.”
I flashed a broad smile, glancing at the well-dressed gentleman in front of me. I saw Roger like an angel sent to Mike’s life. Who better than someone from our own family to lead us into the “path of righteousness” when “walking in the valley of the shadow of death”?
Roger helped to work out a plan for Mike to go into a residential care facility, one of the nicest ones in town, which so happened to have a subsidized apartment. The facility had only four subsidized apartments, and people would normally be on the waiting list for several months or even a year.
“Mike is so lucky!” Staff members commented.
Mike was ready for a change, and everything fell into place, I reflected.
Mike found a home and reconnected with his family. Mike truly looked like a new man, inside and out. He was now wearing clean clothes. He got a hair cut and shaved his entire beard. He’d already had a dental consult, and a plan was in place for him to get the oral treatment he needed. Nonetheless, his smile was shinier than the stars.
“Bye, Mike. We will miss you.” Staff members waved at him as he was leaving the facility with his brother.
Mike beamed, “Thank you for everything!” he said, holding up his coffee mug as if he were toasting his triumph over his homelessness.
About a year later, I ran into a staff member from the residential care facility where Mike lived. I asked how he was doing.
“He is doing really good,” the woman said. “He is happy and everyone loves him.”
“That’s exciting to hear!” I couldn’t hide my emotion. “Is he still enjoying his coffee?”
“Oh... you know about him and his coffee mug...?” She grinned.
The image of Mike lifting his coffee mug flashed in my mind, reminding me of his victory—his well-deserved victory.
“Of course I know all about his coffee mug!”