The Voice

The year was 1990 and I was starting my first week of nursing assistant classes. I had found out that my first rotation would be at a nursing home in downtown Minneapolis. I remember feeling fearful and worried since I didn’t know where it was or what to expect. I remember calling my Dad, who told me to take a test trial run first and that I would be just fine. He was no real help, but I did take a test trial and remember getting all turned around. One way streets, police everywhere and having no idea where to park. I remember my first day there like it was yesterday.

I remember the long hallway leading to the Alzheimer Unit. The door was locked and you had to put the year into the key pad. I was so nervous being in this unit. Of all units, I get placed in this one, one of huge fear for me. We got our first patient and I kept hoping I would not get a man and that I would get a gentle female. Ann, my teacher stated, was picked just for me.

I remember reading her chart first and reading her history. I can’t remember all of the information but I remember reading the first word under her diagnosis, DEMENTIA. Nothing else, just that word. I remember she had family and it listed a short health history. I thought to myself, I can handle this. I gathered my paperwork and went to find her room. I knocked on her door and Ann was sitting in her wheel chair, wide awake and gave me a half smile. I introduced myself and started in asking her questions. I am sure I overwhelmed her with my eager ways and as I look back, I was so naïve. I kept asking her questions and was not getting a response. I reworded questions and statements and still she did not speak. I didn’t know what to do. Did I miss something in her chart? Why is she not telling me her name? Why is she ignoring me and just giving me a sweet, shy smile.

I excused myself and went to find my teacher. I explained to her what the problem was and that I wasn’t getting anywhere with her. I kept thinking that this is going to be a challenge if I can’t get her to communicate. I remember my teacher stating that at the end of the month, I need to give a report on her as a case study. Great, I thought.

So for the next month, Ann and I met every day. I would go home at night, research in all of my nursing books and think of ways that I could get her to speak. I hated that this disease had robbed her of her voice. Every day I would get her out of her room, which she preferred to be in, and bring her to some different destination. We found the huge windows that faced the freeway 94, we strolled the hallways and watched all the people waiting to catch the bus, we attended activities in the building and I noted that she loved to hear people sing. I even caught her humming, but no words ever escaped her lips. For one month, I tried my best to get her to speak. I knew that time was running out and that I had a week left with her. I attended to her cares, gave her medications and we just sat together. I am sure she got sick of me telling her about my day, how nervous I was to drive in this area and my crazy goal to become a RN one day, if I could handle becoming a nursing assistant. For that month, I never saw a family member come and visit her and it made me angry. She was never a behavior problem, she never shouted out or grabbed somebody as the passed. Why wouldn’t someone come and see this lovely woman?

Each and every day, I loved coming to see her. This woman, even without words, made my day. She never ever spoke to me, but it wasn’t because I didn’t try. The last day I had with her, we were sitting by the big window on the floor, sun streaming through and we were watching the people walk by. I told her that it was my last day at the nursing home and that if I was able, I would come see her again if she wanted. As I glanced at her, slow tears are coming down her face and she reaches over and pats my hand. I can still picture her small, veined hand on my own young, nineteen year old hand. She finally communicated with me and I also remember trying not to cry.  After that whole month of trying my hardest, I got more than I needed from her in that single moment.

It has been 24 years since I saw Ann and I know that she is long gone but she has stayed with me this whole time. Ann, I’m sure was very instrumental in me picking nursing. I also know that there are many Ann’s out there. No voice and not able to make her needs known.

I write this because today, I thought of Ann. My cousin Bart called today and he wants to bring his Dad, my uncle and visit Mom tomorrow. I was so happy to hear this. Not many people visit Mom and I know I have talked about it before. I told him that the visit may not last long but that I was so happy to hear he wanted to visit and that he was bringing her brother. Family is important, even if you can’t communicate. Who knows how long Ann’s voice had been missing and maybe her family just didn’t want to come or that it was too hard for them. Even without a voice, visitors are welcome. Just so we are clear, Mom still has her voice. Boy, does she ever. I love to hear her talk about the birds, ask me where Matilda, her dog is, and voice her concerns that I need to get home because it is snowing.

If you ever scared to visit someone in a nursing home, assisted living, the hospital or anywhere, for that matter, please think of Ann. You don’t have to stay long, sometimes sitting with them is all they need. You will never know how much it will touch them or even touch you.



The Bag of Tricks


Years ago, when I was a nursing assistant at North Ridge, I would walk a long hallway and go past a large structure filled with birds in it. There watching quietly, would be many residents watching the birds. On any given day they would be sitting there, ignoring people walking by to where they needed to go, and enjoy the peace of the birds. I used to think that it was sad, in a way that their big enjoyment of the day was watching the birds fly around.

Fast forward twenty years and I am now sitting here watching the birds with Mom. Today, it is a quiet day filled with busy people and residents walking around. There is an alcove where Mom and I sit in large wooden chairs, music quietly playing and the birds flying around. She is ignoring my questions and we sit here drinking coffee and I’m watching her as she watches the birds.

In all honesty, I find my mind wander a million miles away. I should be folding clothes, organizing our family calendar, paying bills and maybe getting a few chapters in with my new book. The girls are back in school after a long break and I haven’t been to see mom as often as I would like. Today, its cold out and I feel the need to go. A girlfriend asked me the other day, “Your Mom won’t know that you haven’t been there in a while, she forgets”. I know she is just being honest with me and I understand, but truthfully, I know if I haven’t been there. My heart knows.

As I sit here watching her, I think of how far we have come. Moving her closer to me, making all of her life choices and the hardness of it all. I was at hockey the other day and I was watching all the grandparents come and watch their young players; clapping and cheering them on. It’s so different for me. I wish she and my dad were here and able to watch the girls in their activities. Cheering them on and being proud of them. My dad would have loved to see Sophia skate.

As we watch the birds, I think of a few days ago when I got the call from her memory care unit that she was refusing to get up. She was dressed but simply wanted to stay in bed. I got to leave work a little early and I stopped by Lunds and got her some peach pie and some bananas. I arrived in her room and showed her what I purchased. She was less than interested and was irritable with me. Something was different about today and I thought of my nursing bag of tricks to get her up. Coffee. Pie. Matilda. Nothing worked and I was ok with her staying in bed. She’s soon to be 88, she’s earned her right to stay in bed. But what worked was those crazy birds. “Lets go and see the birds!”. She gave me a look, and said, “Alright, let’s go!”.

All of her busy life, her baking, gardening, walking every day, her church, her kids, her friends…this is what it comes down to is the bright, colorful, noisy, crazy birds. They leave her content. I’m actually content, the need to do everything today has passed for a moment and I’m spending time with her. I know the days with her are numbered and its like a large clock ticking away. If every day I spend with her is watching the birds, that is alright. Maybe in a way, this is a way for me to slow down too and relax. I’m adding that to my bag of tricks.

Here is to a wonderful start to 2014…Cheers!