Nursing Home Volunteer

In 1994 I suffered from clinical depression.

I decided possibly by giving back to those less fortunate, I might then realize how truly good my life was.  I made the misguided decision to sign on as a volunteer at a nearby nursing home.

My first assignment was to lead a chapel service on the Wednesdays when the regular chaplain had her day off.  You may remember I was a kid who cut Sunday School for the better part of my childhood.  I described that naughty behavior in this blog post, Going to Church.

In spite of my lack of churchie (yes, it is too a word) knowledge, I accepted the job.  Each week I’d look up a Bible passage and dig around for discussion information.  My stooped, wizened parishioners sat in folding or wheelchairs in front of the pulpit–a blond wood podium.  I did the best I could with the limited tools I had.  There might have been about fifteen regulars.  Soon enough they hated me, sensing I was a fraud, and clearly not chaplain-worthy.  One griped that I didn’t even know the hymn The Old Rugged Cross.  Frankly, I found their attitude to be rather unchristian.

They complained to the facility director.  I was relocated and became a pusher.  Of wheelchairs.  I remember ancient Irene, slumped in her chair, her chin on her shrunken chest.  Her hair was thin, greasy, and smelled foul.  A nurse approached me to suggest I roll the elderly lady out to a patch of sunlight.

No sooner did I grab the chair handles than her head whipped up and she began to scream.  “Don’t you dare push me!  I refuse to go!” I began to back off, but the nurse insisted I wheel her outside anyway.

So I did. As we were rolling along Irene said, “You lean down here.  I have something important to tell you.”  Compliant, I bent over and listened. “Closer!” I leaned in more, whereupon she declared “I hate you.  I am going to take you to the pond and drown you.  I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again.”  After that, I gave Irene wide berth.

Another patient, Ruth, was always yelling, “I have to go to the bathroom. I have to pee right now!”  But she was catheterized.  The nurses told me that was her daily lament.

One snowy winter day I arrived wearing tall white Sorel snow boots, a muffler, down coat, and heavy mittens.  Before I even had a chance to take off my outer-wear the nurses called me to their station.  They were laughing uncontrollably about a little old married couple who shared a room.

Walter and Mavis.  When Mavis was young she owned a flower shop in Chicago. She spent hours describing how she decorated her store window for different holidays.  Roses on Valentines, poinsettia’s at Christmas.

Walter and Mavis often bickered.  She claimed he had an affair somewhere along the way.  Mavis shuffled about in rubber soled terry slippers and a house coat.  Walter was rarely out of pajamas.

The morning of the laughing had begun when the nurses heard Walter loudly begging for help.  He kept repeating, “Help Me!  Someone rescue me right now.   I’m an old man.  I don’t want to do this.”

They raced down the long linoleum tiled hall, threw open Walter’s door, and there he was, flat on his back in bed.  Over him, bathrobe up around her hips, squatting over old Walter’s face, was Mavis!  Twenty-three years later that story still makes me giggle.

Then there was Bobby.  He was in his early twenties and suffered from hydrocephalus.  He had an enormous misshapen head, one eye bulged eerily, his lips were pulled back in a  permanent grimace.  Wheelchair bound, he stammered unintelligible conversation.  He spent hours gripping a pencil, trying to learn to write his name on wide lined children’s paper.  Bobby had one passion.  He adored the Chicago Bulls.  He particularly idolized Michael Jordan and had a full-size poster of Air Jordan on the wall next to his hospital bed.

At the time we lived near a golfer named John.  He was our Country Club champion.  Jordan belonged to the club.  He and John were regular golfing partners.  I approached John, told him about Bobby and asked if it might be possible to get an autographed photo of Micheal for him.  Several weeks later John gave me the photograph.  It was signed “To Bobby.  All the Best, Michael Jordan.”  I had it framed.  I was heart-warming to see that young man light up when he held the photograph in his hands. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to thrill someone simply by writing your name?

Somewhere in my old house, there is probably still a photo taken of the two of us that day. Bobby is clutching his picture frame and wearing what was his version of a smile.  Crouched next to his wheelchair is a painfully thin woman smiling a wide smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

There were many sad, wilted men and woman abandoned for hours in front of the community room television.  I read to a woman who was blind.  I listened as another complained that family had dumped her there and they never visited.  Yet the walls of her room were filled with tempera on construction paper paintings from grandkids who were in and out of her room regularly, hauled along by her adult kids.  She simply couldn’t remember their visits.

Each week when I arrived I was met with the news that another patient had passed away.  Ultimately I simply couldn’t bear walking into the place anymore.  It smelled heavily of urine, disinfectant, and loneliness.  I turned in my volunteer pass and moved on.  I don’t remember what I moved on to, but surely is was something less heartbreaking.

If you are depressed and considering a similar volunteer job, DO NOT GO THERE.