These Hands…

I take my 8 year old daughter to the nursing home with me when I work PRN on the weekends. It’s our routine. She wants to be with me. I want her to be with me, but even more importantly I want her to learn service and compassion.

My mom worked in a nursing home when I was growing up. It started when she began doing hair for a facility to make some extra money (for our tuition in Christian school I’m sure…so many sacrifices we didn’t even realize at the time). I would go with her during the summer or on weekends. We started hosting monthly birthday parties and Bingo games with some other ladies and girls from church. I don’t remember the hair gig lasting that long as she quickly became friends with a very special activity director who introduced her further into the “World of long term care”. My mom went back to school as a 30 something year old adult with two kids to get her certification as an Activity Director.

That’s when our lives got interesting!

Every day after school, on most weekends, every holiday and break was now spent at the nursing home. I learned to push and pull three wheelchairs at a time to get people to and from Bingo, Birthday parties, Church or singing activities. We made huge messes creating Easter bonnets, decorating valentines, putting up COUNTLESS Christmas trees, taking care of the many pets they had (birds, fish tanks, hamsters, dogs). We memorized the “sittercise” cassette tape and could do it word for word in the car on our way to school if we wanted to. We knew “If I could Hear my Mother Pray Again” by HEART because the gospel group sang it EVERY month when they came to entertain the residents. I worked in the kitchen. I cleaned the floors. I passed ice to the residents in their rooms. Let’s just say that was my FIRST home, not my second.

All of those years of “volunteering” had SO much to do with the profession I chose, but they also had to do with the person I became.

THAT is why I take my daughter to work with me. The patients’ eyes sparkle when a kid comes in the room. They immediately talk to them, asking how old they are, what grade they are in and so on. Throw a baby doll in her arms and it multiplies times 100. They talk about how pretty they are together, ask her name, etc. If a patient thinks they are working a puzzle with a child, they are more than happy to do it. If they think they are doing it for me…sometimes it’s a staring contest.

There have been occasions where she gives someone a hug and they cry and stroke her hair. There have been occasions where someone grabs her and I have to ‘release’ her from their clutch. THIS is why I take my child to work with me. She just smiles and agrees with everything they say. She’s learning compassion, acceptance, kindness, tenderheartedness.

I took this picture the other day intending to write something about cueing with cognitive patients I’m sure, but when I went back and looked at this photo I saw two hands. One of an 8 year old child who wears a homemade name tag that says “Speech Therapist in Training” in purple marker. One of a 90 year old patient that was unable to perform this seemingly simple task despite my efforts to ‘decrease the cognitive demand through cueing’.

The more I tried to ‘provide reassurance and cues to decrease frustration and anxiety’, the more anxious and defeated she became. I noticed she had several coats of chipped fingernail polish on her nails so I asked her, “How about we have a girl’s day and do a manicure?” To which she replied, “That would be nice.”

I spun her around and my daughter rolled a bedside table up and knowingly retrieved the manicure box from the supply closet. She began taking her polish off…and there WERE layers… I was reminded of the lady who’s nails I used to paint purple every week at mom’s work and my heart swelled.

The session took a sharp turn from memory of task to memory of personal information and spatial orientation. What I found out could not have been gathered from all the data or documentation in 10 activities like I had began the session with. What I found out was more about THESE HANDS…

These hands can no longer hold a pencil for writing, once made weekly grocery lists, signed checks for important business transactions, signed report cards, wrote notes to teachers, made comments in the tiny margins of her Bible, and signed her initials to her beautiful oil paintings.

These hands can that can no longer discriminate beans from rice in a fine motor tub could once pick rocks out of beans as they poured into a pot, pick splinters out of fingers, thread a needle to sew tiny buttons onto baby gowns and bonnets, crochet an afghan to warm her children, hand sew a quilt to give to a newly married couple, and sort seeds into dirt for planting.

This mind that no longer knows what day it is or where it is spending the night once knew every family member’s birthdate and phone number by heart. It was able to plan out lavish family dinners, vacations, budgets, and even calculate taxes.

These legs that can no longer sequence walking or support the weight of her body once ran alongside a bicycle wobbling down the sidewalk, hiked up trails on family vacations, walked to and from the grocery store carrying loads of food and milk, stood for hours ironing clothes for extra income, kneeled in prayer beside the bed of her youngest child.

As we work with our patients who have dementia and seem like they are as far from reality as can possibly be, let’s honor these hands…these legs…this mind as the person they ARE. 

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