Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Defining Moment

I originally wrote this blog as a guest blog on Great Places Inc. It was titled "Love Letters". Since I had such a reaction from it, I thought I would repost it on my site. It is an experience I had when I worked as an aid in the nursing home when I was 17 years old. When I look back I realized what a defining moment it was in my life, and how this experience began my life's work in senior care and advocacy. I am also realizing the connection between this experience and my book, Behind the Old Face.

Throughout my career there are many patients I still remember and think about, even patients from my first nurses aid position in the nursing home. This story is about one of those patients.

One of them was a lady--I'll call her "Ann"--who couldn't speak or do anything for herself. She quietly lay in bed day after day. Ann never had a visitor, so I knew nothing about her.

One evening our assignment was to clean our residents' closets and drawers. While I was working in Ann's room, I found a box. In it were no less than 30 letters and cards. I sat on the floor and started to read them, tears falling from my eyes. They were love letters from a husband to his wife. Never had I known, or even heard about, such profound and amazing love. This woman, lying there alone, seemingly unloved, had actually shared a fairy tale love, rare and amazing, with an adoring spouse.

It was through these letters that I got to know a patient who couldn’t tell me anything about herself. Learning about her life allowed me to have a special relationship with her. As far as I knew, her deceased husband was all she had, and now I felt more responsibility to care for her, for him.

From time to time I would read his letters to her. I don’t know whether Ann could understand--or even hear--anything I said, but I felt that her spirit heard and understood.

My three-decade passion has been based on empathy. Can you imagine being in Ann's shoes? Can you understand what it must be like to have lived a fairy tale life with a best friend, experience a love like no other, only to lose that person and decline to the point where you're alone and unable to care for yourself?

Ann's is not just one story. It's one of countless numbers of stories. There are thousands of elders living in nursing homes, alone and unable to care for themselves. What kind of care do they get when their healthcare workers know nothing about them, and don’t even think about what their lives were like before they ended up, helpless, in a nursing home?

I know from my own experience that patients like Ann are not even talked to or treated with the compassion that is essential to providing good care. Instead, they're just work to be done rather than care to be given.

It is up to us as a society to understand that there is a person and a life Behind the Old Face. I hope my experience can be your experience. I hope this stays in your mind if you work with seniors, or are caring for a parent or loved one with Alzheimer's or Dementia, and become impatient. Let us all realize that many times, because of illness, psychological or physical, that this has taken their life. That they were someone much more before they needed care. Let us realize it could be us. Let us be kinder, more compassionate, and gentle. Let us give our care recipients what we would want for ourselves.

To find caring, respectful and dignified homecare in your area, go to

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