Friday, December 23, 2011

Not Your Happy Volunteering Story

Volunteering at Christmas 2010
Marissa, Brandon, Alexis, Mom, Sam, & Amanda

Today my daughter, Marissa, her step-sister, Taylor, and I went to my mom's work.  She's been a nurse forever--with most of her time spent working as a director of nursing in a nursing home.  From the time I was little, I remember going to work with my mom to visit the senior citizens.  As a teen, I would paint the old ladies's nails or just sit and chat with them.  As I got older I would bring them cookies or candy and when I became a mom, have taken the kids there several times a year.  The seniors, for the most part, love the company--especially the kids.  There's a ton of funny stories that I've accumulated over the years--like the time when my mom introduced me to "Bill" who was 94 years young.  When I went to shake his hand, he grabbed ahold and told me that I could call him "Wild Bill"--funny stuff!  There's the women that have called me "Miss America" and the ones that want to just hold my hand or get a hug in.  There was the time when Brandon and Marissa were delivering gifts and the old dude was watching porn--can't make this stuff up!  They were shocked and came running to find me.  Or the little Chinese lady, who didn't speak a lick of English, and who would follow Brandon all around the home.  Or the Korean guy that doesn't do the typical high-five with Marissa--rather does high thumbs.   Or the lady that I visited today, who forgot to get dressed...  Can't help but chuckle a bit.  Each of them has a story.  Some of their stories are decorated on their walls--pictures from the 30s or 40s--some older than that.  I love taking the time to learn about people--to understand them; to see the mark they've left on the world.  I believe we all leave a mark of some sort.

Marissa serving at the Mother's Day brunch--May 2011

Today when I was going around delivering the gifts, helping the seniors open them, and just sitting down for a chat, it felt different; I felt different.  Perhaps it's because I'm getting older or perhaps it's because my parents are.  Regardless, every time I exited a room and ran into my mom I had to whisper the same thing over and over in her ear--"I will NEVER put you in a place like this."  And then jokingly, "Unless you piss me off and then there's a chance..."  haha  Watching some struggle with the tape, but wanting to respect their opportunity to open the present stayed with me.  Those old, gnarled fingers and the paper, thin skin.  Stays with me.  Seeing names like Billie, Ida, and Martha--so different from the names of today's girls.  Stuff like that just stays with me.

This morning three people died before they could receive their presents.  We had to pull those from the pile.  Sad.  And because the nursing home is so crowded, we had to use one of the lady's (who just passed) room to put the gifts for that wing in.  I didn't like that.  One little lady said to me, "Who brought me these?"  I told her, "Santa--you must've been good this year!"  She questioned whether or not she deserved the wrapped up socks, fleece, and candy that was headed her way.  I told her of course she did.  One lady told me of the 15 siblings she grew up with, another of her ailments.  One man wished me "Merry Christmas" at least ten times.  =)

And I got to be honest here--handing out these presents didn't feel good.  Hearing their stories didn't feel good.  There were no warm fuzzy feelings resonating in my heart.  I didn't feel this volunteering happiness that I have in years past.  What the hell?

I found myself taking my time with each of the seniors--helping them unwrap, labeling their gifts (yes, some people actually steal from them--sick), and hanging up their new clothes.  I wanted to talk with them--more importantly, I wanted to give them an opportunity to talk to someone.  I wanted to give them something that no wrapped gift does--time and companionship, even if just for a little while.

See, seeing these people left here to rot really bothers me.  It's like they know this is the last place they'll live before they meet their Maker.  There are some who never have a visitor; others whose visitors make the quick mandatory 10 minute stop then move along with their day.  The excitement on the senior's faces over candy and a robe made me feel horrible.  I could never just let my parents rot in there.  Couldn't do it.

Instead of feeling all warm and fuzzy for doing some volunteer work, I felt angry.  I asked my mom, "How could people do this to their parents?" She made justifications--some of their kids are older than she is and it's difficult for them to manage themselves; throwing an ailing senior in the mix isn't an option.  For others there's not the time or it's just simply too much.  Doesn't matter to me.  Unless they needed 24 hour care, I just couldn't do that to my parents.

I realized how ugly death is--how lonely dying can be.  And I hope that one day, when I'm faced with the inevitable, that I'm not confined to a room, wearing a Depends, hoping my kids will stop by.  There's just no dignity in that--perhaps that is what was bothering me all day.

And one more thing before I go--it's funny (not funny haha, but funny sad).  I was going to change this entire piece because, being so close to Christmas and all, the tone is so dismal.  But I realized that by doing so, I wouldn't be giving a true representation of what the experience was for me.  So I've left it, as is--as honest as I could be.  I hope that it inspires just one person to stop on by and say hi to a senior citizen.  I know they'd really appreciate it.

P.S. Especially if you have little ones!  They adore kids!  Oh, and bring candy--but check first with the nurses, some do have diabetes.


  1. You've done it again - brought a tear to my eyes in your evaluation of your experience. I like your 'heart' and feelings you share. But, of all my children, you've always been the most sensitive. It's one of your greatest attributes. I hope many people read this blog and their heartstrings are tugged to do just what you suggest. Even if you don't have a loved one in a retirement community, go visit one and share a little joy & give some much-needed love to someone who could use it. Remember, older people are us with a few years added - and we all want to be cared for and about!

  2. Shhh... no every one knows about my sensitivity. I'm a hard ass, dammit! Just joking! Don't worry, I won't stick you or dad in there--you'll go to Joelle's! haha =) Love you!