In my first trip to the east coast, only a few things stuck in my eight-year-old, homesick, goatsick mind:
- a) The donkey I met and fell hopelessly in love with at a motel made of train cars. (Unfortunately none of the winsome, red cabooses were big enough for our family, so we stayed in a boxcar with a microwave that spoke to you. I had never encountered such a modern piece of equipment before.)
- b) Meeting Marie.
Marie was born what seemed like a century before me. She had seen both World Wars and thousands of days packed with life. What I remember about her is white—white hair, white skin, white sheets, white curtains, white walls. White future with light coming in and her getting sucked out of her bed and everything being almost uncomfortably bright. That’s how I imagined death for her, and I did imagine it, nervously, grimly standing among my siblings.
Shortly after getting home, I started writing cards to Marie. These mostly involved hieroglyphics detailing my excitement about various livestock gestation cycles and the resigned broken state of my heart when one of my rabbits devoured its own young.
I don’t know if she ever really received these epistles in her care home. If she had, I am certain my important matters were conveyed in such a way that only my well-studied mother could have caught my drift. But if Marie had perused one, she stopped a while later when I received a packet of my own scrawls from the last 6 months marked with “DECEASED. RETURN TO SENDER.”
My childhood went on to involve a high level of interaction with elderly people, not just with important individuals who spoke into my life, but with general exposure to feeding tubes and what strokes did to you and uninvited petting of the hair by someone who thought you were their daughter. This was mostly thanks to parents who were decidedly unorthodox, bringing six kids and music, dancing, a habitually dying van, books, and organized Christmas and worship services along in life. Also, thanks to grandparents who won others by their winsome faithfulness or aggressive storytelling charisma with a habit of making a community out of wayward chickens.
A couple years ago now, I left for Ukraine for several months and came back to my home-house sold (as you well know if you’ve been around my usual harping on these matters). I moved into the city—first into a bedroom generously lent me by my brother, then into my parents walk-in closet, and then into an apartment with enough houseplants and wall paraphernalia to constantly suppress the angst of undone dishes. This month, lease is up and I’ll be moving to a new corner in a new place.
I applied to an assisted living/memory care a month after settling back in America and, almost without realizing it, got a job as a dietary aide. My family had been involved in the facility for years before moving 30 miles closer, organizing worship and Christmas services with many stout hearts in our church. My first solo day happened to be Christmas Eve and my food serving comrade was an American Ukrainian.
During a very sick and unsettled period, I got to show up almost every day and pour coffee, wash dishes, hear what it was like to survive Montana winters in the 40’s, and listen to stories about Yale. The life routines, simple, measurable tasks, and kind, familiar people were perfect for that angsty, hopeless wandering period.
Later I learned how to make jello from a box instead of scratch and cream puffs from scratch instead of a box. Getting to work as a prep-cook—carrying 40 lbs of cookie dough around and making grilled cheese exactly to residents’ specifications, turning around at the end of the night to find that the cook had already scrubbed the grill, all these magical, comforting things—made wearing through at least one pair of black shoes a month a simple, peaceful, fulfilled exhaustion.
I went into an interview on the way to work one morning thinking I was applying for a server job at a new memory care. It turned out I was hired as a caregiver. I remember my first day alone with our first resident. I’d been at my publishing company job in the morning, then as a prep-cook in the middle of the day, then a med-tech (yeah, didn’t GET to stay a caregiver long) at the new place.
Our first resident.
She was the greatest of jewels—wheelchair bound, pleasant during the day, prone to lamenting depression at night. In the dementia that had crept up on her, she was constantly looping back in her conversations as she worked hard to make you feel more at ease. To her, you were always the stranger that needed to be consoled.
For two months I had the privilege of being asked every hour or so, “Did you grow up in the country or the city?” Followed by the delight in her eyes and, “Well, did you have animals?” And then her “I had a pony named Bonny. That’s why my legs are bowed. I lived on that pony.”
This beautiful woman could not remember the thrill of my soul when I told her about growing up in the country and my various odd animals. And so she asked me again and I could sit and be homesick and toss plastic balls at plastic rolling pins and make the same jokes about our incompetent sportsmanship.
At night she would get so blue and, since we didn’t open our doors to other residents for weeks, we would sit together and make remarks on weird hairdos on America’s Got Talent and how we could never imagine signing up to stand in front of anyone.
While she got ready for bed she would always ask, “How many kids you got?” And we would discuss whether pet fish were enough company for the human soul. Then she would tell me about how she met her husband at a picnic and about her three boys and about how she thought they were all married, but she wasn’t sure and she could check, and it wouldn’t hurt for me to go on more picnics.
Before laying down she would recite all her sons’ names, because she knew she was forgetting everything. That’s why she constantly recommended I not get old, “because everybody leaves you and then you start leaving yourself.” And we would try talk about anything while she suffered herself to be dressed and washed and toileted by someone she thought she’d never met.
She was a sunshine woman. A simple, obedient, faithful woman who fell asleep in her chair reading the same page of a devotional everyday and whose tired eyes lit up if you hummed a stanza from Amazing Grace while you had to poke and prod and force her to take her pills.
Eventually she developed pneumonia. One of the last days I saw her, when I was standing in the med room reading new orders telling me only comfort measures were now in place, her grandson stopped outside the door. He was in cowboy boots, red eyes set in his bristly face and said he noticed my tire was flat and could he fix it for me. And then one of her sons, the names she remembered, came and thanked us for taking care of their mom and I tried to say, “It’s been the greatest of honors and joys.” But I think all I said is, “I’ll call my dad about the tire.” #classic
I developed my own general health fiasco at the time and didn’t get to go back until our sunshine woman had already gone. She waited until no one was in the room, because she was quiet and kind and didn’t want to inconvenience anyone, and slipped bravely home.
The human ability to forget may be a grand mercy, but losing your mind is not. There is nothing beautiful about the various forms of dementia. It is objectively unright, counter-life. A once-compassionate person slides into constantly hitting and pulling and walking on others, a 90-year-old woman paces for eight hours trying to take doors off their hinges while wailing a Hail Mary, a husband spends the entire night crying that he doesn’t know what he did wrong to make his wife stop loving and living with him—no one–afflicted, family, or caregiver, should ever be subjected to these moments.
And what seems like torture—the moments the afflicted person is lucid and realizes their own decay and transformation. When they have their own pain and frustration when they realize the pain and frustration they are causing in others. This can take you to pieces you are certain will stay permanently apart.
Such anguish can only be a result of an unnatural cosmic decay.
While dealing with the families is one of the most difficult and frustrating things I’ve ever encountered, many of them convicted me to tears. To love someone who has gone from a person you knew and trusted, who knew and trusted you—where there were mutual obligations and expectations—to loving them in the same way when they have become someone else entirely, often hostile and pleading and painful in their interaction—this is beautiful.
The people I have met in elderly care (yes, there are plenty of rotten, dirty ones among them) have given me things I can’t imagine receiving in any other way.
Another resident who I also only knew for about a month had come from a foreign place, a culture incredibly godless that I already loved because of one of my best friends. He’d become a Christian in his early days and, unlike the stereotype of his nation, was outgoing and energetic and abundant with his overflowing and catching love of Jesus.
Every day we had the same conversation about why he had to stay with us, where his room was, how he couldn’t practice in his profession anymore. Every day there were tears of grief and frustration and then embarrassment for his emotions and anxiety. And every day there was also:
“Do you know Jesus?”
“Sister, do you go to church? Do you read the Bible? Do you love Him?”
And he would remember just long enough to tell another resident or visitor or family member, “I’ve found a sister.”
He would pray so loudly in his first language that the atheist across the hall would pull her emergency cord. And then forget she had and pull it again.
This earnest man, wasting away, would sit on the edge of his bed at night and cry into his hands and then quiet himself while you read him the Bible or prayed with him, without even realizing what he was doing. Even after spending days in despair and fear, it was like his faith and his heart had muscle memory. We are so much more than minds.
God brought this starving and fearful man into my life right when I didn’t feel like ever going to church again, when love seemed like a stupid word, and when being connected to fellow believers seemed more like a recipe for pain than rejoicing. Although I could tell he was repeatedly losing the context of what or why we were praying the instant I said “amen” he would go straight into praying for me in return. Many of his petitions had to do with dogs I’d never owned or places I’d never been, but he always begged “give this friend you have given me in a dark place a soul and eyes that are only for you, Jesus.”
Near the end of my time at the memory care, he also went to be with his Savior. God released him of an affliction and confusion he could not physically and mentally bear.
I went to his memorial and heard the gospel all over again. And then his neighbor mentioned a story that also involved my own grandfather who turned out to be this little man’s neighbor once upon a time. It was the week of my grandpa’s anniversary of passing, his life a crazy story in itself and one that had ended a decade earlier.
Even though this little man never remembered my name no matter how many slips of paper he wrote it on, he and his family had constantly welcomed me with a version of open arms a reserved, fearful person like myself could understand. Here, again, while his wife hugged me and asked me how I was doing, God was orchestrating ways I couldn’t avoid His embrace. Breadcrumbs everywhere of His care in my little life right in the middle of these other bigger dramas.
After working as dietary aide, food server, cook, caregiver, med-tech, and activities director over three different facilities, my only current interaction with elderly care is food serving part-time in an upper-crust continued care community home. It’s a fancy dinner restaurant. Our managers are the best in the world. The residents generally seem to be Cambridge grads whose wine bottles they entrust to me are sometimes of more lasting value than Alfred (my Honda).
If you’ve worked in any situation that sees physical and mental deterioration, you’ve probably sat in a break-room (if you had time for a break at all) and listened to staff swear off ever being in those weak places.
“If I get dementia, somebody needs to let me go skydiving without a parachute.”
“I’m not getting old, I’m going out with a bang.”
“If I live past 70, I want to be like so-and-so and if I’m like the other so-and-so, please shoot me.”
They may be our way of coping and are certainly the natural reaction after getting threatened with a knife or spending an hour cleaning up a dirty bathroom floor or administering morphine to a sunken-eyed, unresponsive body.
Once, I had just grabbed everything to go home, but I was still shaking from an earlier incident with an Alzheimer’s resident. I thought there was no way I was coming back for my next shift in eight hours. I walked past a wheelchair-bound man we shall call Bob.
Bob was the epitome of a gentleman. Except when he was not, and those had been my hardest moments on any shift.
Sometimes Bob was frustrated because he couldn’t do music like he used to. Somehow, however, he could remember all the words to hymns I’d play on our cheap, Craigslist piano. He could also tell me if I was sharp or flat. But like most of the people I was working with everyday, he didn’t have any idea who I was one moment to the next.
I said, in a sobby, pathetic girl voice, “Goodbye, Bob.”
And he said, “Hello Bethany.”
I came back the next shift, of course, and he told me, while I repeatedly asked him to let me have his sock, “I’m comfortable around you. You are like one of us.”
*moment of terror regarding my tendencies, but still one of the best things someone has ever said to me.*
No, dementia is not beautiful. Getting old in general is not beautiful. But life is beautiful. Life.
And maybe Life is not what I think it is—always a green tree.
Somehow, it has often been people whose lives are ending who have given pieces of life away to me. Sometimes these are people that many think have already ended in terms of “quality of life.”
It’s weird to go to work in a field where you thought you’d be a servant, only to find that it’s those you hoped to serve who are continuously giving themselves away.
We are in a complicated place now with advance directives and medical advancements. I feel like families are almost being forced into a position of choosing life or death in a way I only want to push on God.
I’ve only actively worked in elderly care communities for two years. There are hundreds of wretched and horrible problems with them. And I’ve never had to persevere or accumulate the experience many others have done so well.
But I know that every moment, every turn, somehow God was providing me a home, a word, a connection with people that had suffered more, done more, lived more—people I never deserved to know. And He chose to do it through these people I considered weak. (Of course, this has been the pattern my entire life, not just in elderly care.)
What a mercy it is, that at the end of everything, God begins to remind us again that all we need is Him. Like babies, we are forced to give up our independence, although it’s harder now we’ve started thinking we could be our own gods.
We are given more time to prepare our hearts, quiet our minds, take naps, bemoan our lack of taste-buds, remember the amazing meals we have eaten in our life, and look forward to eating the best thing we can imagine with Him.
We are cornered into realizing that the only thing we can give another is the perspective of our faith, the tried-ness of our hope, and, greatest of all, Love. It was never money or vacations or big houses. Those things will end as we run out of life.
Bob can sit across from me and listen to me whine and tell me, “it will not always be like this.”
You will not always be in a cycle of financial desperation.
You will not always feel like a hopeless wanderer.
You will not always fall apart with anxiety.
You will not always wallow in selfishness.
You will not always struggle against that sin.
And, also, you will not always get to see that person everyday. To forgive them or to ask forgiveness or to simply sit in reverie at the way they turn book pages.
Life is given. Life, as we know it, is finite. Life has a happy ending. And, like His life, it is for giving away.
Weakness or the simple ugliness of decay tells that story more potently than most of us understand…until even people like me cannot ignore it.