We look at old people residing in nursing homes and what do we see? Most times we see someone who is bent, deaf, slow to move and sometimes slow to understand and we judge them as being useless, but is that wise?
All of these people have lived a long life – they may have done things we never had an opportunity to do because ‘back in the day’ things were different.
I’ve never used a tin bath and have never milked a cow.
If they are still able to speak, we could make time to listen to their story. They love to share their life stories of how they lived and what they did before they became ill, before they became old and disabled, before they shut down and gave in to old age.
Some old people are not good at expressing who they are because they feel useless and think that no-one will be interested in what they have to say, so they disappear inside themselves. Some are obviously disabled and are confined to a wheelchair, and they avoid making eye contact. Others can walk but only slowly with a walking aid.
It is easy for us to dismiss these people but when we allow ourselves the time to connect, the spark of life is there inside, and they make eye contact.
Some may have dementia and have lost all memory of their past, but the being is still there inside the body and it is possible to make eye contact and feel a deep connection, even if there is no actual verbal communication.
I have been working as a volunteer in an elder care facility and it has been an eye opener. I have visited elder care facilities before and seen men and women just sitting around like zombies in armchairs not moving, some with the TV blaring, and that is the classic image many of us hold. To me it has never felt right.
There is a wide variety of capabilities, some walking upright, some bent over a mobility aid, some in wheelchairs and a few in beds that can be wheeled about. Their ability to communicate varies widely and I am fast learning not to ignore any of them, because they are all so interesting.
The staff at this care home are inspiring, treating everyone with respect, and I am learning from watching them just how much the residents can interact if we give them the time of day, which of course, as a volunteer, I can.
We don’t need to know a person’s history to engage with them, but it helps to know that the broken body we are looking at is not how it always was for them, that there was once a young girl or boy with hopes and dreams, ambitions, plans, friends, family, everything a human life entails.
We may have no concept of their background, but it will have contributed to where they are today, they could have been a school teacher, a ship’s captain, a master craftsman, a doctor, or a wealthy landlord, they will have interacted with thousands of people and been very much alive.
If we judge them by what we see today, we may be doing them a disservice treating them as stupid, lazy, decrepit and slow.
Everyone deserves our respect and our care, and the more we can encourage them to express, and share something of themselves, the more we will learn about their perspective on life which will naturally be different from our own.
Carmel R., Australia