The new patient rolled onto the floor right during change of shift. The group of women at the nurses station glanced up as the stretcher passed by. The EMT’s grinned as the patient called out, “What a good-looking bunch of women!” I glanced at my co-worker. “Either he’s in the throes of dementia or in full possession of his faculties.” I knew I would get to the bottom of the matter as this eighty-three-year old newcomer would be my patient.
A short while later, when I spotted the Kindle in his room, I asked him what he was reading.
Would that be Stephen Hawking? The physicist?
Yes, that’s right.
But, weren’t you a law professor?
I was. But after retirement, I decided to teach myself quantum mechanics and physics.
I had my answer. Not a hint of dementia in this very likable, very bright man.
Are you surprised? The truth is, nursing homes are full of people who have amazing life stories and hidden talents.
I’ll never forget Jennie, a ninety-five-year old woman who introduced me to the ancient art of loom knitting. When I went into her room, more often than not, I found her working with a ball of yarn and a round, wooden ring. Her waking hours were spent making hats for premature babies in the NICU. Jennie showed me how to loom knit, and in turn, I taught my daughters. We have made scarves and hats and that is just the beginning of what can be knit on a loom. Jennie’s comment on her contribution to society: “I want to do something, and since I went blind I found that it is easier to knit with a loom.” Her disability did not cause her to quit; she just made a necessary adjustment and continued on.
One of the elderly people I cared for was the founder of The Compass, the birthplace of contemporary improv comedy. Famous alumni of The Compass include, among others, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Jerry Stiller, and Ed Asner. His model for theater became the precursor of Second City Theater and Saturday Night Live. One rainy, Sunday morning I spotted this man with his walker, trudging up the road to church. Even in his declining years, the ‘father of American Improv’ hungers for more. He continues to meet with a local pastor, searching for spiritual truth.
Some years ago while at a library book sale, my son found a number of red, hardcover books published in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. They were about a little boy named Buddy and tell of his many adventures. We bought all the books available, and my son carefully constructed a special bookcase for their storage. They are still on the bookshelf. Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of my current patients is the daughter-in-law of the author, and not only that, assisted in the writing of some of the books. She is also related to the author who wrote under the name Laura Lee Hope and penned the Bobbsey Twins books. She is full of stories about being a part of this literary family.
Can you imagine being the youngest of 17 children? One of my patients tells me stories of being in just that position and often feeling lost in the crowd. He recently lost his fifty-one-year old son, and the only comfort I can give him is to sit and hold his hand and pray with him. Never one to expect much, he is grateful for whatever attention he receives. Even with his broken heart, his eyes haven’t lost their twinkle and the good humor of this Irishman rises to the surface.
When I consider the lives of these people, I am struck anew that we are all made in the image of God. Intellect, creativity, compassion, faithfulness, and strength are all marks of the imprint of God on the human soul. There are lessons to learn, skills to imitate, and examples of perseverance to follow as we interact with the elderly. There is much to gain before we lose these precious souls to eternity.
As much value as there is in nurturing friendships with the elderly, younger people have treasures to offer them as well. They can enter the world of the elderly and be to them living epistles of the love of God. Time spent looking back on a life well lived, opens the door to looking forward and talking about eternity. Swaying together to Sinatra opens the door to old hymns of the faith. Discussions on life experiences may open the door to share the good news of the living Christ.
Many people live in close proximity to this wide open mission field where ‘the wheat is white for harvest’. It would be wonderful if followers of Jesus recognized the value of nurturing these friendships, and at the same time realize what they can offer to someone who is on the threshold of eternity.
If the opportunity arises to visit at a nursing home or interact with the elderly in some other forum, be encouraged that you will be the one who comes away full.