When I was a kid the youth from church used to sometimes go on “Sunshine Bands.” If you missed this little bit of churchspeak (which as near as I can tell seems to be exclusively Adventist, though I know other churches do the same thing; they just call it something else), it’s a trip to the nursing home to cheer up the elderly, usually by singing to them.
Singing in itself wasn’t too bad. I mean, I wasn’t a good singer, but if all that was required of me was to go as part of the herd, mingle my voice with the rest in a few hymns and choruses, and then make a clean getaway, I could almost, sort-of, handle it. I hated the atmosphere and the smell and I was uncomfortable around all those old people in wheelchairs, most of them seeming not to understand why we were there. But I could do it — barely.
What really got me were the times that an overenthusiastic leader interpreted “Sunshine Band” to mean not just singing, and standing with a smile on while some pastor or leader led out in a little prayer, but going around afterwards to sit and talk with the residents. On one horrific occasion, we were even expected to go room to room and visit with people in their rooms. It took me awhile to recover from that. I have enough trouble making small talk with people who are about my own age, have perfect hearing and comprehension, and have invited me to their house. Throw me in a room with someone who’s deaf, has dementia, doesn’t know me from Adam and doesn’t necessarily even want me around, and the amount of “sunshine” I’m going to be bringing to the situation is pretty minimal.
All this by way of introduction to say that I know the title of this post is hyperbole. There are, clearly, more depressing places on earth than nursing homes. Refugee camps, I’m pretty sure. Maximum security prisons. Although in both those places, at least some of the people there have the hope of getting out and having a life to look forward to. In the nursing home, everyone is on Death Row. Apart from my natural and very regrettable squeamishness around illness of any kind, I find it hard to be sunshiny in a place whose stated purpose is Wait Here Till You Die.
It’s been just about one year since my Aunt Gertie moved into a nursing home, and I have grappled with those feelings each and every day. Well, no, mostly I’ve grappled with them every second day, because that’s when I go see her (my mom takes the alternate days, and being both a better person, and also retired, she visits for much longer than I do, so she’s the hero of this story). I have never once stepped into that building without feeling visceral revulsion and a heavy drooping of my spirits.
But I go there. I show up. I make the kids come too, though never as often as Aunt Gertie would like to see them, but about five times as often as they’d like go. “I don’t like this place, it’s depressing,” Emma said to me, echoing my own sentiments, on one recent visit.
“Yeah, and that’s why we have to go. If you were stuck in a depressing place, you’d want your family to come visit, wouldn’t you?”
“No, I wouldn’t expect them to, because I’d know how depressing it was.”
I told her to wait 70 years and see how she felt about that.
Here’s one thing that drives me crazy: this stereotype that nursing homes exist in our society because we don’t care about our elderly people and we stick them away in institutions and forget about them.
Nursing homes exist because society has changed — because we’re more likely to live in nuclear families than extended families; because we have smaller families; because we move farther away from home; because fewer families have a stay-at-home homemaker/caregiver, and most importantly, because people are living longer, at a greater level of disability. Having spent a year going in and out of the most depressing place on earth, I’m willing to guess that most families in there are like ours — families who did everything under the sun to care for their elderly relative, to allow them a measure of freedom and independence and balance that with good, responsible care — until the day it just wasn’t possible to maintain that balance anymore.
When I go to visit Aunt Gertie, I don’t see old people shoved off in a corner and forgotten about. I do see people who are sick, crippled, sometimes struggling with dementia along with physical disabilities. I see them being cared for by staff who are often overworked and who are shuffled around within the system far too often, but who are honestly doing the very best they can to provide a good standard of care. And I see family members — the same ones, often, day after day, visiting their loved ones, bringing in food to supplement the uninspiring institutional fare, faithfully keeping their elderly family member a part of their lives even though they have to live in an institution.
I’m always amazed and impressed by people who genuinely like working in nursing homes. I had a student a few years back whose career goal was to become an LPN so she could work with the elderly. Years ago, I knew a guy my own age who had a business degree and whose dream was to manage a nursing home. I wish I was like them. We all have our gifts. Put me in a room of teens and young adults with a mix of mental health, substance abuse and legal issues, and I’m right at home. Again, because there’s that hope aspect — I enjoy working with youth because I can see the possibility of something better for them in the future. Blessed are those who can work with elderly people, whose future is, as they say, all behind them now, and still find meaning in what they do.
For me, it will always be the most depressing place on earth, and like almost everyone else I always want to say, “Shoot me if I ever have to end up in one of those places!” But it happens. Life gets out of hand, we outlive our own strength and independence and even our loved ones’ inability to care for us. And we go on living, and we’re blessed if there are people — both family members and professionals — who go on loving us and caring for us, no matter what. Maybe loving people who don’t have a bright future ahead of them is really the truest and purest kind of service.
I’m still not much of a ray of sunshine when I go to the nursing home. But apparently Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, whether I like it or not, so I’m doing my best.