In an effort to get outside of myself and share where it was needed, I volunteered with Little Brothers on Thanksgiving to bring lunch to the elderly and hang out with them. I did this for several reasons, 1) because I couldn’t make it home for Thanksgiving and I thought giving would be a better use of my time rather than sliding into victim mode, 2) because when I visited my grandmother (who I was extremely close to) in a nursing home the last years of her life it was beyond depressing – even as she went out of her way to make the best of it and put on a happy brave face for everyone else 3) I miss her and I guess a part of me wants to alleviate the isolation of people in her position as an homage to her. She more than any other human being I have met in my 33 years here thought of others over herself – so in a way I am doing this for her.
It’s not always easy though. What is easy is to bring a meal to two elderly people in a nursing home one day out of the year. What followed was not so easy: hearing their stories and facing my conscience.
The first man I visited was 78 and although physically decrepit, mentally sharp. He had no children or family in the area. He lay in bed in a cramped space with two other people sharing his room – neither of whom spoke any English. He mentioned his son later in conversation and when I tried to clarify which children, he pointed to a picture of a Scottish terrier on his wall. He has a friend who takes him to church every Sunday and brings her dog with him. This two or three hours out of his week is the highlight of his week and one of his few opportunities at any substantive human connection. “That dog loves me so much. He almost licks my hand off every time he sees me.” He teared up as he said this and I instantly felt my visit to him was so small. Don’t misunderstand, he was so truly grateful for my visit – desperate for it actually. But it occurred to me that to truly alleviate his loneliness this would need to be a regular thing.
We become so busy in our lives and take our mobility and freedom for granted, that it’s so easy to forget or even imagine how it must be to be bedridden in a veritable prison and forgotten with no family. So while I might be praising myself for doing a simple kindness in an isolated incident, it is not enough. How difficult would it be to visit him once a week for an hour? It would be very little for me and mean so much for him. Granted, walking into a nursing home is no parade. It is depressing and seeing him in this pain causes a natural reaction of wanting to run the other way. It is difficult to be there. Hanging out in nursing homes certainly is not at the top of my list, but the reality of the situation is, any one of us could easily or will easily be in this situation one day. We will all get old, we are not guaranteed to die in our sleep, our mind may go first or our body – either one rendering us unable to care for ourselves. What if we don’t have family close by to take care of us, or what if we have no family at all by this age? What then? So as I argued with myself as to why regular visits wouldn’t be realistic or possible, I really couldn’t justify a reason not to. I would want someone to do the same for me.
The other woman I visited seemed to be both physically and mentally sound. She was a young 68 year old who had been sent here and possibly slipped through the cracks because her only son died two years ago and someone decided she couldn’t be trusted with a stove so sent her off to a nursing home. I’m not sure which situation was more heartwrenching. I asked her what she missed and as she complained about the terrible food, she said “Mexican food and….I just want to go out and see a good movie at a theater. ” We talked and laughed and she warned me to stay away from her mean cat who she had brought with her from home and had rescued from a shelter. Again, I left her room feeling guilty; knowing what I had to do, but not wanting to do it. Not wanting the responsiblity. But I cannot forget either one of them. And I imagine how my visit might have affected them. They were probably grateful for it but as I left probably wondered, “Will she come back? Will I see her again?” They seemed to me like a couple of orphans (albeit orphans who had lived very full lives) who were in essence saying, “Pick me, pick me.”
Sometimes it is easy to give. If we have an extra $5 and a homeless person asking for money or food. It doesn’t take much to help them. As I try to spiritually evolve and become a better person, the challenge becomes to do those things which are more of a sacrifice. I would not choose to spend my time in a place that has a heavy cloud of death over it, where it reeks of loneliness and isolation. I would not be going there to spend the last precious moments of life with my grandmother, listening to her reminisce about my grandfather or just sitting with her on a couch, leaning against her and hugging her, smelling her Chanel No. 5. I would be going there purely for someone else. Even to announce that you’re doing volunteer work is not pure giving because you’re receiving something for your Ego. The highest forms of giving have to be true sacrifices and anonymous.
So as I left this place and became aware of their pain and what was needed, although it certainly is a nice sentiment to have that empathy, it means absolutely nothing unless I do something about it. And the more resistance I have to do something, the more important it is to actually do it. I heard somewhere that the right thing to do is almost always the hardest thing or the most uncomfortable. I believe this to be true; now it needs to be put into action. Awareness is the seed, but without action it means nothing. We can’t think our way out of problems, we have to be the solution.