My first encounter with the elderly and dying came when I was eighteen. I was a nurse’s aide for about five months. That’s how long it took me to realize I was not meant to be a nurse.
I dropped my plans to go into nursing, but the memories of the people I met in that Nebraska nursing home have stayed with me for nearly three decades.
I remember the stroke victims. The woman who spent each day repeating “Mana, mana, mana.” The man who was able to say a handful of words clearly. All expletives.
Another woman reminded me of Edith from All in the Family. She would nervously apply red lipstick when her handsome husband visited. I remember how much I disliked him as he stood there with his arm around his girlfriend and urged his adolescent daughters to give their invalid mother a hug.
I remember the woman named Mary who said she’d never had cross words with her husband of fifty years. I wondered if she was being honest. I still wonder.
And there was the man who demanded our immediate attention, saying he was related to William Buckley, Jr. I was only eighteen. I had no idea who William Buckley, Jr., was. I asked the other nurses. They hadn’t heard of him either.
The residents of that Omaha nursing home fascinated me. I wanted to sit with these people. Talk to them. Find out their stories. Was Mary a saint, or was her husband just easy to get along with? Had the man who swore a blue streak been a swearer before his stroke? Did “Edith” really think her husband would be impressed with her red lipstick? Did it kill her spirit to see him with a mistress, both of them standing near her like they had done their good deed for the year?
Was Mr. Buckley really related to the Mr. Buckley, Jr.?
The first floor of that nursing home was busy, sometimes downright chaotic. There was never a moment to sit and simply be with the patients. There was little dignity in getting old. And something in me said this isn’t right.
I remember one day in particular. Three patients had to be bathed before the evening meal. I gently washed a frail woman, the second of the three patients on my list. I did all the talking while she simply submitted to the process. She weighed almost nothing. I could lift her from the wheelchair to the bath chair and back again by myself. She looked at me quietly as I dressed her, putting on her gown and robe and slippers. If I hurried, I would get the last patient bathed before the floor nurse announced that the kitchen was open.
I wheeled the woman to her room and collected my final patient. A few moments later, the head nurse entered the shower room. She asked me if Lydia had seemed okay when I bathed her. “She was quiet, but nothing unusual. Why?”
The nurse told me that Lydia was dead. I was the last person who had touched her body, bathed her, spoken to her.
And I didn’t know anything about her, except her name.
In that moment, I knew that the elderly deserve more than the hurried care our society gives them. We are so advanced. And yet, we often forget the dignity of the human person.
The man in prison.
The cast-off wife with her lipstick-smile.
The one who spends all day saying mana, mana, mana or a string of profanity. The one who thinks about her deceased husband all day, every day.
I have decided that I want to go to a Catholic nursing home when I’m old. I want to spend my final hours and minutes in a place where I can go to Mass, where a nurse can wheel me into an Adoration Chapel, where I will be surrounded by rosaries and crucifixes and images of Our Lady. I want to pass from here to there with the faith and the faithful all around me.
As Catholics, we believe in the dignity of the human person. I plan to spend my final days in a place where the caretakers know that I am made in the image and likeness of God. And maybe, I will share a few words with a young nurse’s aide, and perhaps she will remember me with a smile.