By: Bonnie Lee Camp, BSW
You have been coming to see me for a long time haven’t you? she asks.
“Yes,” I smile, not really thinking that I have been coming all that long in the grand scheme of things. A month and a half perhaps...but it must seem like a long time to someone who sits in a chair or in bed every single day of her life and doesn’t ever get out of her room.
And there is nothing for her to look at. I noticed that on my first visit. She has no pictures on the walls or even a calendar. Once she asked for a calendar, and her son brought her one from a funeral home and hung it on the wall for her. What was he thinking? It didn’t even have nice big, bright pictures on it. But someone has since taken it down, and the walls around her bed are bare once more.
She sits in her bed and glances around the room, too far away from the 8-inch TV screen that sits on the other side of the room to be able to see it. And besides, it belongs to the lady who shares the room with her, and even if it were big enough to see, she wouldn’t be able to hear it. I can’t even hear it.
“When am I going to be able to go home?” she looks at me and asks.
Today she doesn’t understand why she is here or how she got here. She has been diagnosed with end-stage dementia.
“Do you know why I am here?” she inquires. “Do you know when I can go home?”
I see that she is beginning to get agitated because she cannot remember why she is in the nursing home facility. Not wanting to upset her further, I try to explain that she is here because her doctor wants her to rest and make sure that she gets the medicine and medical treatment that she needs.
She seems to be thinking about my answer, and then the attention turns to me.
“Are you getting paid to come here?”
“No,” I reply. “I am a social work intern.”
I am not sure that she understands what I have just said. She continues to look at me, and I wonder if she is questioning why I would come and spend time with someone I don’t know and am not getting paid to provide care for.
“I am going to school to be a social worker, and I have a minor in gerontology,” I begin to explain to her. “I am doing 90 hours in the field this semester as part of my requirement for class. I also volunteer and work with older adults because I feel called to do this type of work. I love being with older adults.”
I think that she is accepting this explanation, until she looks at me and states as a matter of fact, “You have no time for yourself.”
Somewhat surprised to hear that come out of her mouth, I wonder how she knows that. Her insight catches me off guard. Other people I know tell me that all the time. They remind me that I need to learn to say “no” to the many requests that seem to come my way, but that is because they know me too well. I have not told her that I work full time and go to school full time, yet she proclaims it without any hesitation at all. It is like she is looking inside of me and seeing how little time I do keep for myself. This amazes me.
As I sit here looking at her, admiring her inquisitiveness and interest in me (which I have not seen before this particular visit), my mind wanders to the future, and I briefly think about whether there will be someone who will come and visit me when it is my turn to sit in the chair and receive comfort care. Will there be a volunteer like me somewhere out there who will have a heart for older adults and who will want to come and spend time with me just because they feel they have a calling to do so? Are the children in this next generation being raised to be compassionate and caring, like my parents raised me to be? To have a love and respect for other people, especially the vulnerable populations in our society?
Bringing my attention back to the resident, I ask, “Do you remember me bringing you the rosary beads last week?”
“No, you brought me rosary beads?”
“Yes, they are wrapped around your ceramic cat statue on your nightstand.”
Looking into my eyes, she asks, “Can I see them?”
“Of course, I will get them for you.”
I walk around the bed and retrieve them from the large shiny white Persian cat on which they are draped. I walk back around her bed and place them gently in her hand. She looks at me in wonder.
“Where did you get these?” she asks.
“My mother-in-law made them for you,” I tell her.
“Who?” she wants to know.
“My mother-in-law. She made them for you. I asked her to make you a set of rosary beads, because I know that you are Catholic.”
“Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women,” and she begins to say the rosary, her words coming quickly and without hesitation. She doesn’t stop until her recitation is complete and without error. It is amazing to me that although she cannot remember if she has children, or if she is married, or if she is in the facility because she just experienced a miscarriage, she can remember how to say the rosary. It makes my day, and I am hoping hers, too.
“Who did you say made these?” she asks.
I once again explain to her that my mother-in-law made them for her, and I answer all her other questions as well like, does she get paid to do this, who does she make them for, what do they do with them when they are completed, do they all look like this. I explain to her that my mother-in-law makes them with a group of ladies once a week on Mondays, and then they give them to the priests to hand out to people who would like to have them.
“This is the Our Father,” she tells me and indicates this to me on a certain part of the beads.
“Yes,” I respond to her smiling, “it is.”
She looks at me and asks me if I can put the beads back, which I do, and then she is once again asking me if I know when she can leave or if I know why she is in here.
She looks lovely today. Her hair is a beautiful snowy white color, and she has big, expressive brown eyes. She must have been extremely attractive as a younger woman, I think, as she is still lovely even at the end of her life and even though she is not well.
I wonder if she knows how much I am enjoying my time with her. Being with her today has allowed me this treasured visit that I’ll not forget. She has opened up to me over the course of our visit and has even shared some of the special times in her life with me today. I have enjoyed hearing about how she used to bake cookies for the kids who would eat them as fast as she could bake them, and about how much she enjoyed sewing.
“I can sew for you, if you need anything sewn. I can do hems, that sort of thing, and I don’t charge much,” she explains. “I’m reasonable.”
“Did your mother teach you to sew?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says as she shakes her head. “She taught me.”
“Mom was good to us. She used to bake us cookies and give us things, but never too much.
“She made you appreciate what you were given,” I reply to her.
“Yes, she was good to us,” she reiterates.
Her memories, when they are retrieveable, are good company for her—I can tell. So many things change over time, but some things like a mother’s love remain constant and it can be felt throughout the life span. The comfort of a mother’s love can be brought back time and time again when we need it to be the warmth we need to face the cold winds of reality. She can still feel how good it was to be with her mom—you can tell by the look on her face.
As I am getting ready to end our visit, I ask her if she would like to have some magazines. I think that maybe if she had something to look at, to take her mind off of the fact that she is in here and doesn’t know why, she may not become as agitated.
“Do you have some?” she asks, meaning some magazines.
“Yes, I do. I will get some for you before I leave.”
I sit for a few more minutes, feeling a little sad that I have to leave. I know that there is a good possibility that the next time I come to visit, she won’t remember me or this time we have spent together. Sometimes it is hard to leave a resident when you know there is no promise for what tomorrow may hold for them or for you.
I tell her that it is time for me to be going, but that I will go out to my car and bring back some magazines for her to look through after I leave.
I walk out to the car and briefly scan the magazines that I carry around with me in case I get stuck in a doctor’s office or have to wait for someone and have nothing to do. Coastal Living, Better Homes and Gardens, and Country Home, I will take her a total of four and hope that there is something in them that will catch her interest and give her something to think about besides where she is and what she is doing here. I take them inside and place them on her bedside table.
“Did you go home and get them?” she asks.
“No, just out to my car where I had them on the back seat. I will leave them here for you, and you can look at them at your leisure.”
“Thank you,” she says.
Today, because of this visit, I have yet another special bloom to add to my memory garden. As a result of this visit, I feel once again that I have been lucky enough to have been in the presence of an angel. I know this because when I leave, I feel better than when I arrived. My step is lighter and my heart is singing. She has touched me like many of the other older adults that I am lucky enough to meet and spent time with.
When I am older, it is my hope that I, too, will be visited by someone who hopes to be able to make a difference in older adults’ lives.
Bonnie Lee Camp, BSW, is currently an MSW student in the advanced standing program at Rutgers University-Camden. She graduated in May 2010 from Richard Stockton College with her BSW and minors in gerontology and writing.
This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 17, No. 3).