Tracing the Nursing Home

My latest {ad}venture has me volunteering in a nursing home for less than two weeks, since I am due to be back in school pretty soon and was interested in a way to maximize my time back in the City. I was advised by a Speech Therapist to volunteer some time working with a population I had never worked with before; the elderly. Considering that I love to volunteer and that it would look great on my resume, I jumped at the idea and found a nursing in which the application wouldn’t take weeks to process. The nursing home assigned me to assist the Recreational Therapy department in their daily activities.

Tomorrow makes one full week, and it’s a little bittersweet thinking about leaving soon being that I’ve just started solidifying some consistency and relationships with the residents, especially those who speak Spanish. Please note, no actual names have been used to protect the privacy of the patients/residents.


Here’s how my past week went:

Thursday Jan 12th, 9:30am-12:30pm

This was my first official day of volunteering after having met with the Volunteer Coordinator on Monday. She introduces me to the folks over at Recreational Therapy (RT) in an office that’s basically one big open room with about 6-8 desks cramped along the perimeters of the walls. In the middle of the room there’s carts filled with plastic containers of arts, crafts and knick-knacks.

I am paired up with one of the therapists. We go up to the floor she’s responsible for, the 2nd floor, and she does a bead project with the women there who are willing and able. She pairs me up with a Dominican man who is 54 but who looks to be in his late 60’s due to his condition. We play 10 hands of dominoes, in which I win one. Not only does he not speak much English, I notice that half of his face/mouth seems to be paralyzed because when he speaks he only moves the right side of his jaw. With careful attention, his Spanish is decipherable, and due to extrinsic redundancy (he habitually repeats his phrases 2 times)  I am able to engage in conversation with him. After the butt-whopping, Mr. DR is taken to physical therapy.

In comes a raspy-voiced, healthy and formidable Puerto Rican woman with all white hair. Before I see her, I hear her. Her favorite question is ‘Mami, what I do?‘ or in other words, What would you like me to do, now? which is her way of asking the nurse/attendant what they would like her to do next. At first I figured that it was a question of wanting reassurance, or demonstrating her dependency but as she sat in the day room for about 30 minutes she could not sit still and go 5 minutes without asking out loud Mami what I do? to anyone listening. Since she can only see well out of one eye, I deduced asks the question to make sure someone is around and that she’s not completely alone.

I learn that she has recently lost her husband, who also lived in the nursing home, and since then she does not hesitate in telling you ‘I am scared‘ or asking ‘I shouldn’t be scared, right?’ making it clear that she does not want to be left alone. I work on a simple motor activity exercise with her, having to repeat the task to her over and over since in between every action she takes the opportunity to ask me ‘Mami, what I do?’  The hardest part was reassuring her that she was in a room full of people, so there was no need to be afraid. I realize that comforting the residents and speaking positivity to them is a big part of the job, so I try my best to be genuine.

Friday Jan 13th, 9:30am-1:30am

Today I’m matched with a different therapist and we head to the 5th floor. The activity today is a chat, and so everyone is gathered around and the topic is Superstition and the upcoming celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday. The therapist tries to engage her audience by asking questions, and sharing personal stories. I meet another Dominican woman, who’s speech is fine and she complains about her leg being no longer ‘any good’ which resulted in her thinking that she was no longer ‘any good.’ Immediately I want to encourage her, but it’s hard for me to find the words in Spanish. I remind her that we are all on Earth for a reason, and I make a mental note to be prepared with much better rebuttals the next time.

Monday, Jan 16th 10:00am-1:30pm

I am the only volunteer working on a holiday, but I don’t mind because I know my time is short. I am back on the second floor, as the therapist begins an activity of ‘Word Search’ using the phrase I HAVE A DREAM SPEECH. The residents come up with 39 words, which is ironic, being that MLK died at that age. I then spend some one-on-one time with another resident, teaching her how to play dominoes again.

Tuesday, Jan 17th 9:30am-1:30pm

On the second floor there’s an arts and crafts project that involves hearts and painting for Valentine’s Day. I am assigned to a woman we’ll call Ms. Relentless because she had no desire in staying in the recreation room, all she wanted to do was go and lay down on her bad.

Ms. Relentless: I don’t feel well, I want to go to bed.

Me: I’m sorry, the nurses don’t want you in the room by yourself. It’s a safety issue. What happens if you try to get up and fall?

Ms. R: I just don’t feel well, I have to sit on this chair all day and it’s tiring. I’d rather lay in my bed, my back hurts.

{Therapist offers to bring her a pillow for her wheelchair. She comes back with a pillow and a magazine for her}

Ms. R: **Quiet for 2 minutes** When my daughters come, I’m going to tell them to take me out of this place. Some people talk to me nice, and others treat me bad, I don’t know why I don’t do anything to anybody.

Me: *thinking* I’m sure your daughters want you to be as comfortable as possible, but people here have your best interest at heart.

Ms. R: Some people here have ill intentions, I don’t know why I don’t do anything to anybody.

Me: *quiet*

Ms. R: I don’t feel well, I want to go to my room.

Me: You can’t go to your room until after lunch. You have to wait a little while.

Ms. R: My stomach hurts, can I have some coffee?

Me: You already had breakfast, lunch will be served in another 30 minutes.

Ms. R: I don’t feel well, I want to go to my room. I’m not bothering anyone when I’m in my room laying down.

This goes on for about the next half hour, until I practically have nothing else to say. I realize that the art of persuasion is harder than I anticipate, and takes some real skill, not mere back-and-forth. Negotiation is tied in there somehow as well, but since I don’t know necessarily what I can or cannot promise, I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth.

Wed Jan 18th, 10am-1:30pm

Today was probably the most productive day for me. There was a professional art class held with an outside teacher who comes once a week, and I got to see just how therapeutic painting can be. First, everyone chose pictures from magazine cut-outs. Then with their palate’s chosen, and the drawing/free-handing begins. I help with small details in paintings, or simply when someone’s hand gets tired, I encourage them by picking up the brush and filling in what they don’t have the strength to finish. I love how engaged and encouraging the art teacher is, they trust her judgment, advice and opinions. When I realize that an outlet such as art is something most of the residents look forward to every week, I start to be thankful for those people who take their jobs seriously in that place. I know sometimes the work can get redundant, even frustrating, but those caregivers are very, very necessary.

Nursing homes are not necessarily the happiest place, but some do their very best to offer a real home environment. Before seeing how one works first-hand, I thought bad about the family’s who drop their elderly and go on about their lives. I could never imagine putting my mother in her old age in a place like that, but I know that for someone who needs care around-the-clock a home-based nurse costs lots of money and circumstances play a major role in such a difficult decision. I know it’s easy to judge what you will do when you’re not being faced with the situation. When that time comes, I pray to God that I have the flexibility to take care of my mother. But I no longer knock those who are forced to place their loved ones in the hands of strangers.



Tracing the Nursing Home

6 thoughts on “Tracing the Nursing Home

  1. Nikks says:

    My friend works in an assisted living home with seniors and she loves it. Some of her stories are hilarious and other days are very trying. I don’t know if I could do it, work or volunteer there. I respect all the great caregivers who are passionate about their jobs and are genuinely caring.

    I’ve always said I don’t think I could put my folks in one of those places, but when I see and hear about how some of the elderly are, I can’t help but question myself. I think I’d rather keep them at home and have an aid come to them, no matter the cost. Hopefully I’ll never need to make that kind of decision.

    Good for you for doing this!

  2. I love the elderly. I’ve been in a nursing home a few times and I always come out overwhelmed. My family doesn’t believe in putting family in nursing homes unless it’s really necessary. Growing up, I watched my grandmother, great aunts, older cousins taking care of their parents in their homes. My grandmother died 3 years ago and her daughter and my mother help take care of her. Even her other daughter took 2 months of leave from her job in MS to come back to AR to help out. The last 3 months of her life she had to be put into a nursing home because shr needed physical therapy. Toward the end of her stay, she had a stroke that was life threatening. She survived but was told she wouldn’t live long so my family made the decision to let her die in her own home. Anyway, I visited my grandmother several times while she was in the nursing home. I use to love sitting up there talking to some of the patients. Some were funny and some mean. lol My older cousin has been working at that nursing home for 30 years and she mentioned some of the patients have been there for years and they never get visitors. It’s sad when the family lives in the same city as the nursing home and never visit their relatives.

    I thouhght about volunteering in a nursing home but think I will get too attached.

    1. It was kind of sad leaving, especially when it seems like residents look forward to your coming. Some homes have people who are not necessarily old, but need ’round-the-clock care, so sometimes you’ll find people who are young and still lucid, but have no one but the caregivers/doctors to talk to. It’s also very sad to know that those people are on the same routines, having nothing but ‘special outings’ or events to look forward to. I’m glad I spent some time there, albeit short.
      I hope I never have to make that decision either, but either way I think it’s very honorable to take care of your family members at home, or to make it a point to visit them in their nursing homes. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. That was very interesting. For myself, when I get old I won’t mind going into a home for seniors once it’s a nice, clean, bright place with lovely landscaping. I’ve had several elderly people in my family who lived very long and never went into a home. We had people in to help but there can be problems with both kinds of incontinence, with hoarding, etc. People who look after the elderly and treat them well are a blessing but it’s not something for everyone.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. If my children (weird to say that, when I have none yet) ever decide to put me in a home- I would have one stipulation wherever it has to be warm at least 8 months out of the year. Better yet, I’d rather live in Costa Rica than have to be in a home, but if the issue came down to say being close to family then I would still choose a beautiful and warm place. Sunshine makes all the difference.
      I was looking into your books, all of which sound very interesting. Especially “Just an Affair.”

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