Monday, August 4, 2008

Freeze And Justify

A week ago, I started working as an all-around office assistant (helping out in admissions, HR, finance, anyone else who asks) in a Nursing Home not far from where I live. I spend so much of my time in people's offices (or, starting today, in the basement) that I don't often really see the elderly people who live in the home. Today, though, I had an unusual experience.

I was sitting at the computer typing up something for someone when an old black woman shuffled in. She looked at me a moment, I looked at her, and then she invited herself to sit down on a chair in the room - supposedly waiting to see the man who works in the office next door (he's the head of something-or-other).

Almost immediately, the woman started babbling about her bank account and how somebody (I have no idea who) is paying her money at very tiny increments at a time so that she won't run away (I think that's what she said) but she insisted it would only cause her to spend her money wisely. She repeated this story to me...I can't even count how many times. Each time she sounded like she was going on to another story, it would always come back to that one.

I wasn't able to get a word in edgewise, so at a certain point I sort of ignored her and continued the typing I had to do. That's when she said to me sharply, "you're not listening!"

I snapped hurriedly back to attention, afraid I would get in trouble for treating her rudely or something. And that's when I really got a good look at her. She was...well, to be blunt, she wasn't very pretty to look at. The first thought that came to mind was a troll. She looked exactly like one. And her mouth was all wrong - she was missing nearly all her teeth and the four she did have were huge and stuck out over her upper lip when she spoke. And when she laughed, it was this long cackle - really, just the way you'd imagine a troll laughing. The whole picture was somewhat grotesque but I couldn't tear my eyes away, even though I wanted to. It was like I was stuck there staring. And it didn't make me feel superior. I wasn't feeling cocky or obnoxious with my own youth. No, what I felt was sad.

It made me even more sad to see another employee of the Nursing Home come in for a few minutes to wait for someone and to nod her head patronizingly at the old woman. And the woman just babbled on, oblivious to the fact that no one really cared to listen to her and that everyone who passed by nodded to me knowingly, as though they were saying, "ah, lucky you. She's a crazy one, alright." All I could think was...this woman - this troll-like woman who also reminded me distinctly of how I imagined the old witch in the Hansel and Gretel story - she was a sane person once. She once had all her teeth. Her skin was once smooth and her hair was once not thinning. She once had a family who loved her. She once had a boyfriend who thought she was beautiful - who married her, had children with her, built a life with her.

Where did all that go? It's like they all got sucked up in a black hole. It's like her past life is a black hole.

How could someone else who seemed to be somewhere in her 30s nod and smile patronizingly at this woman who lived so much longer and experienced so much more? And yet...somehow...was now Can you imagine the tragedy of losing your own mind? Can you imagine a normal, smart, beautiful, fun, put-together, with-it person one day being disfigured, alone, somewhat crazy, and babbling about bank accounts to a strange, clueless girl working in the office?

I tried to imagine what this woman's life must have been like years and years ago. I tried to imagine her young and thriving, at the brink of starting her life in the adult world - an adventure! Right?

And I slipped away. I froze time and completely slipped away and watched from the outside a world of both beauty and horror, where people were once so alive and then ended up so...not.

And I saw - there is history in the old. Rich, rich history. But of the few residents I've seen in this Nursing Home...that history seems lost in a new life of gentle exercise, time in the TV room, scheduled meals, wheelchairs, patronizing nurses, and senseless babble.

And why is it that I somewhat fear the elderly people who have kind of lost their sanity? Why do I find it scary when they babble to themselves or start talking about nonsense things? It shouldn't be scary, should it? It's horribly, horribly sad.

Maybe what I'm scared of is not these specific elderly people themselves. Maybe what I'm scared of is what happened to them - how life seems to have bailed on them and given them up. Maybe I'm scared of the idea that a person can have led such a rich life and then still end up like...well, like the old woman who sat in that chair today going on and on and on about her bank account. Or like the strange old man who sometimes staggers in and mutters a pathetic request for money. Insane. Disfigured. Completely dependent on people who patronize you. And there isn't any choice in the matter, either.

Sometimes we live in a cruel world. People can be cruel. Life can be cruel. It's cruel for a person with so much history, experience, love, loss, and life-wisdom to their name to be reduced to the emptiness that some of these elderly people have become. It's cruel that the young patronize the old, when it is we who have so much still to learn. And it is cruel that the old, who have so much they could teach, can't teach because they've lost their minds.

And in that mostly empty office today sat two clueless creatures. One - an old, crazy lady whose head has been emptied of all she once knew and held onto. Two - a nervous young girl made to feel even more nervous and young by the weird old person commanding her attention. One was near the end of her life, the other was really just starting hers. And neither of them seemed to understand very much about what life throws us - the first because she once knew and lost it, the second because she has yet to learn.

The world sometimes seems to be very upside down.


Daphne said...

Wow Erachet. Wow. Wow. I think this is my favorite post that I've read of yours. You expressed yourself so thoughtfully and beautifully here.

I think what you’re saying is very true. But I think the insight that you extracted from this situation is incredible, and I envy you. It’s amazing to be able to look at some old "crazy" lady, and feel compassion, not out of a sense of pity, but out of a sense of awe for who that person really is. Thank you so much for sharing this insight.

As much as you may not be thrilled with this job, it sounds like you have definitely gained from it.

the apple said...

Great post.

I had the same realization myself after volunteering in a nursing home. Rather than feeling repulsed by the people who mumbled to themselves, ate food off the floor, yelled about conspiracies and generally needed help with their appearance, I just felt so sad. Like you said, these were all people who were me once upon a time: young, healthy, had people who loved them, and now they were decrepit people sitting around in a nursing home. It's hard to remember that all these people were once people with the same hopes, aspirations, fears and dreams as you or I, but you seem to be doing an excellent job.

Good luck with the rest of the summer.

RaggedyMom said...

I remember having a lot of these moments in high school when I went to the nursing home during lunch periods on Wednesdays for 'chesed' time. I visited the same resident over three or four years on a weekly basis. And it is Difficult. And I think that your title for this post is great. As is the post itself. Good luck out there.

Moshe said...

Yeah, I never want to be like that...but we don't get a choice.
I always feel bad when I look at older people who seem to have nothing and appear to be waiting for the end. It's so sad.

Beautiful post though.

loved this line

"One was near the end of her life, the other was really just starting hers. And neither of them seemed to understand very much about what life throws us - the first because she once knew and lost it, the second because she has yet to learn."

Scraps said...

I have a friend who worked as a social worker in a nursing home for a few years, and she found it to be incredibly depressing. I can understand why. When you look at these people, who once led vibrant, fulfilling lives, and what they've been reduced to - it's sad and humbling and scary.

A little less than a year ago, I accompanied a group of children for a "chessed visit" to a nursing home in my hometown, and I met a woman who I thought I recognized. She used to come to the kindergarten in my day school every year to do a pottery project with the children. I went up to her and asked if she was the person I remembered, and I told her I remembered her coming to my class when I was five. She was so happy that I remembered her, that I knew who she was! Of course she didn't remember me - even if she wasn't old and in a nursing home, why should she remember (or even recognize) me after 19 years? But it literally made her day that I remembered her.

I think that one of the saddest things about nursing homes is that so many of the residents are just left there to die. They don't have visitors; their families live far away or simply don't find the time to visit, their friends are all in nursing homes or have already passed away. No wonder they go crazy. I would.

Great post, Erachet.