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INSIDE A CARE HOME


Yesterday I had my last shift working in a long term care home. I was supposed to move to Toronto this summer for an internship, and then Covid happened and I got suddenly shipped back home – which I had first thought was really devastating. An unfortunate situation ended up giving me the most rewarding opportunity. I got to be there for residents during the loneliest and most confusing time of their lives. And I fell in love with each and every one of them.


During breakfast on my very first day, one of the residents threw a butter knife across the dining room at another resident, and I remember thinking to myself that this was going to be exactly like working with children. It turns out, I was right. The days were filled with scheduled meals, snack times and a LOT of naps. Everyone assumes that when you get older, you get along with everyone. This was not the case. The dining room was filled with class clowns, bullies, the timid sweetheart, and of course the princess. Despite having severe dementia, they could always make me laugh, and had strangely specific requests. One of the residents wouldn’t drink her peach juice unless it had exactly three ice cubes in it, with a particular glass. Another would only drink out of red mugs, and another wouldn’t eat without his special fork and two cups of coffee (one cream two sugars) in front of him at all times.

Dementia care can be daunting, and it is certainly not easy. I’ve volunteered with Alzheimer’s patients the last couple of years, but it was typically the early stages so there would be obvious short term memory loss but no other symptoms. The residents I worked with in the care home were in complex care – meaning their dementia was severe, or they were suffering from a disease that affected their cognition or physical ability. What a lot of people don’t understand about dementia is that it can present in many ways, not just memory loss. It’s also apraxia, agnosia and aphasia. This means impaired spatial organization abilities, impaired perception and impaired language ability, respectively. It affects everyone differently though. Besides having repetitive interactions/conversations, one of my residents believes she’s in her thirties. She told me a lot about her relationship with her parents, and has asked me to watch her babies (dolls) for her a few times so she could go to work. I always rocked her baby dolls to sleep for twenty minutes as she rolled herself down the hallway to go to work. It takes incredible patience, but you have to become part of their reality – and meet them halfway.

One day I was on my break and wandering down the halls looking for residents to chat with. I wanted to get to know them every chance I got, even if our conversations didn’t make any sense. I went past one of their rooms and she seemed to be in distress. This particular resident didn’t have dementia, but had a cognitive and physical disability and quite frequently suffered from panic attacks. I went in there and asked if she was okay. She wasn't. She was trying to call the nurse to get an Ativan, but she was on her break and nobody was answering. I filled up her water and gave her a sip. I held her hand and we took deep breaths together until she calmed down. She was struggling to change the channel on her TV so I did it for her and she started to cry. She was so appreciative she didn't know what to say, and all I did was be there. She thanked me as another tear rolled down her face and I started to tear up too. I don't think people usually remember what you said, or what you did. But I don't think they can forget how you made them feel. And sitting in her room holding her hand made her feel better in that moment, which was all that mattered.

I took it upon myself, a personal challenge I guess, to get to know some of the most – to be frank – unpleasant residents and I’m glad I did. One particular woman was just not very nice. We never really had any good interactions, because she was usually complaining. I decided to go visit her in her room one day to see if I could dig a little deeper. She had black and white photos strung across her walls, so I asked about them. She dove into stories about each picture, from her days growing up on a potato farm in Saskatchewan, to meeting her future husband, and their life together. We were looking at her wedding pictures, and she explained that she had to wait four years for him to return from WWII so they could get married. The November that he returned, they tied the knot. I said she must’ve been cold getting those pictures outside in her dress. She said “oh honey, I wasn't cold. I was in love.” She squeezed my hand and told me how much she missed him. They were together for 62 years before he passed. She began to warm up to me, and we became closer over the summer. Everyone has a story.

Another woman was constantly screaming for help, and because she never actually needed help, people started to brush her off. Really sad I know, which is why I made an effort to be there for her every time I could. One day I said “it’s okay, you are okay,” when she screamed for help. She told me I didn’t understand, and that she was not okay. “I’m stuck. I’m stuck in this chair, and in this body. I don't know what to do and I don't know where to go.” That struck me. I didn't understand, and I had no right to tell her how she felt. We talked about how hard that is, and I asked her about what excited her, and what she did as a career. Her eyes lit up as she talked about books. She was a teacher, and she loved history. She told me every book can teach you something. She grew to be one of my favourite residents. I learned how important it is to really listen. To put yourself in another’s shoes, and empathize with their situation. People just want to be heard.

I was in a dining room I was new to the first time, and I met another resident who I won’t forget. After I had served lunch, done dishes and come back to tidy up, I met her. She was a frail woman in a wheelchair who always came in to eat on her own once everyone left. She moved very slowly, as she heated up her food and went to the fridge to get herself milk. Each movement carefully planned. It took quite some time to make trips to the microwave and back. Then to the fridge and back. Then to get utensils and back. My immediate reaction was to try to help, but she couldn't communicate verbally and I didn't want to get in her way. She had a process that worked for her, so I let her be. Because I’ve been taking medical science and had learned about it, I assumed she had ALS – which I further found out to be true. ALS is a degenerative neurological disease that affects nerve cells, progressively leading to muscle weakness, loss of motor control and eventual paralysis. I knew that she could still understand me, and her intellectual capacity was intact regardless if she could communicate or not. I talked to her while I cleaned, I told her about what was going on in my life – hoping she didn't mind the company. I went into her room about a week after I first met her, always smelling so strongly of peanuts, to change the garbage’s and tidy up. There were some papers scattered across her bed side table that I organized neatly. On the top it was a letter to herself. I didn’t want to intrude on her privacy, but while I was stacking them I saw she wrote that she wanted to do everything in her power to graciously accept help when necessary, but to maintain her independence until she no longer could. In that moment I was so relieved I didn’t interfere – even if it wasn't ill-intended. I learned how important it is to allow individuals to keep their identity and independence. People don’t always need to be saved, and you have to respect that.

Long term care homes are where individuals spend their last leg of life. And with that, I experienced a lot of death. We always lined the hallways and walked out with the gurney, saying a special goodbye with a poem. There were a couple residents I got to know quite well that passed away, which was really hard and I often cried in the stairwell. But I also learned how beautiful it can be to celebrate a life. And I learned how important it is to have love around you at the end.

 

Although it wasn't the summer I thought it would be, it couldn't have been better. I’m leaving the care home with an empathetic heart, extraordinary patience and understanding, and a lot of funny stories. And I’m going to miss their wildly inappropriate jokes, little quirks, and warm hugs.


Everything happens for a reason.

- Iz

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