Into the hands of the lonely…

I’m selfishly uncomfortable as we walk through the old age home’s entrance.  Already I see it – locks on the doors.  An alarm sounds an ear-piercing blare when our group takes too long to get inside.  I wince and look around.

It feels like a hospital.  It looks like a hospital.  I hate hospitals.

Our group is made up of mostly children and their parents, all part of a community volunteer day.  Our mission is to deliver small bags of cookies to seniors at a local long-term care home.  It seemed simple enough.

Some of the precious children involved with our Cookie Walk – our three are in the front row.

 As we move through the corridors, I linger in the back.  My children (bless them) walk fearlessly from room to room, carefully placing ribbon-topped bags of sweets in wrinkled hands.  Some women refuse the gift, others melt at the sight of children.  Some can barely speak, others are keen and bright.  Most, though, are dying.  Our daughters curls bounce as she shyly answers questions about her name, age, and what she named her stuffed puppy (Samson).

My soul chokes as I peek into a small lounge.  Half-conscious men gaze blankly from reclined wheelchairs.  I wonder what they were like when they were young and strong.  I wonder what they are thinking.  A sweet young girl in our group begins to cry, overwhelmed by all the pain, the tubes, the glossy eyes.  I feel for her and fight tears myself.  This is where we keep our aging.  Our sick.  Our Mothers and Fathers.  Our Grandmas and Grandpas.

I see life fire up in a couple’s eyes as they tell us how they love children.  They had nine.  They are here alone, but at least together.  One tiny room, stale air, and each other.  We run out of cookies so we sing them “You Are My Sunshine” instead.  I fight the urge to just break right down in the middle of it all.

A tiny lady with all kinds of needles and tubes attached to her gushes over our three.  “Oh!  What gems.  Oh, how lovely.  Oh, dear, what lovely children!”  I smile wide and touch a frail arm. “Thank you so much.”  We chat briefly but I feel helpless and so incredibly full of regret as I (for the first time ever) visit these beautiful, lonely people who are ecstatic at the prospect of simple company.   I was nervous I wouldn’t know what to say.  I didn’t have to say anything.  It wasn’t about me (thank goodness).  I just had to be there.  Be present.

I met Mrs. Coles just as we were almost leaving.  She took it upon her spunky self to follow us downstairs.  She beckons me from afar,

“I’m trying to figure out who to thank!?”

I pause.

“For the cookies.  Who do I thank?  Who are you?”

I hesitate.

“Well, I’m Cassandra.  And this is my husband Wes, and our children Simon, Audrey, and Alex.”  She beams as I explain we’re part of a community day organized to spread love and light in our town.

“We need more people like you,” she says, and I feel uncomfortable.

We actually need less people like me. What we need is more people like Jesus.

I liked Mrs. Coles immediately.  She was funny and sincere, and open.

“You know,” she started, holding herself up with a walker.  “I feel grateful.  Being in here – it’s made me realize what I have.  I can walk – I’ve got my mind.  I’ve got my sense of humor.”  She smiles through creased eyes.  “I really am doing alright compared to most here.”

Thankfulness.  Eucharisteo.  Even hereHad she read the book?

Some days, though, it’s like a jail.  “I just wish I could feel the sun on my face,” she glances at white-washed walls, all around us.  She leans in and whispers, “… but I had to fight for that.  I put up quite a fuss about letting me sit outside.  Finally they let me – with a PSW.  Always someone watching.”

I see her despair, but only for a moment.  She quickly forces a smile.

“What if I came and we sat outside?”  I offer quietly, not sure if she’ll believe me.

She smiles and assures me it’s not necessary.  I don’t know what to say.

All these days on earth I’ve lived – so many for me.  For just me.

I claim to love Christ, yet I do not love like Him.  I have watched TV while beautiful souls like Mrs. Coles sit alone, longing for someone, anyone, to just care enough to say hello.  And she thinks the world needs more of me?

Tears sting my eyes while we talk about her family and the so many who never have a single visitor.  I promise to write and come again.  And I will.

Mrs. Coles follows me out – she waits too long for the door to shut and the yowling alarm follows me down the path towards the road, my eyes filling up as I walk, my pace quickening.  My heart burns inside my chest.  I march into the breeze of a cool June day.  All these lives – locked away, and I walk free.  What do I do with my freedom?  With my youth?  With these hands and these feet?

I awaken to much more than the plight of the elderly today.  I awaken to my own selfishness and the depth of it.  And the insane grace poured down on me – so undeserved, so unexplainable.

I awaken to the call to actually get up and respond to the need right here in my own town.  The need that is so often ignored.  To face fears and trust God.  To not worry about it when I don’t know what to say.  To just show up and hand myself to Him.

He does amazing things through the broken.  And who knows what can happen through a simple gift? Even homemade cookies carefully placed into the hands of the lonely.

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  • Jenny Smith

    I sit here as tears just stream down my face…how many times have I thought about doing what you did…just visiting our elderly with my boys…please let us go with the next time you go. Not that I think I have anything to offer (I don't,) but I want to be present. Thank you for sharing this…love you!
    Jenny Smith

  • Noël McNeil

    This is beautifully written. I have had similar experiences and I commend you for holding yourself together. A friend of mine has been admitted to an elderly care home because she now has alzheimers. It's such a terrible disease. My husband and I (and kids too) go and visit her and I cry the whole time. Literally. If it wasn't for my hubby I would just be sitting there, holding my friends hand, and crying. Reality is hard, especially when you see and experience the lonely and afflicted. I do hope you go back and visit that lovely lady. And thank you for sharing your heart. Lord bless!

  • Mandy

    Thank you. I visited the nursing home and stopped last February when I lost my heart-friend, Esther Avalee King. I will go back again, thanks to your post. :') I remember, so thank you.

  • MrsP

    Some reflections regarding this:
    Did you notice your elderly friends skin? So fine, and soft, isn't it? It is a gift of old age.
    And, we are dying, too, but in this place, we see dying's natural conclusion. It is a gift of old age.
    Yes, visit your friend and sit in the sun with her, but it's OK to watch TV sometimes, too. Perspective and balance. They are gifts of old age.
    In the end, nursing homes are not ugly, they are beautiful. We watch people poised, standing patiently in their last door. It is a gift of old age.
    I heard once that Raymond Burr, wheelchair bound and confined to his home during his final illness, when asked what he did with his days, say that he spent them watching his lemon trees grow. A gift of old age.
    Visiting from Women Living Well.

  • Cassandra

    Thank you ladies. MrsP – I understand where you are coming from with this, but I just don't see sitting alone and wishing you could just feel the sun on your face as a 'natural conclusion'. I see it as our world's selfish conclusion. These people are left alone in homes where they largely do not want to be. Of course there are wonderful homes and some seniors are so ill it is necessary, but not all. I think many nursing homes are ugly and we can't ignore the reality of what goes on behind many closed doors. I believe there are many gifts to old age, yes. But I also believe many of our precious seniors are being robbed of these very gifts. Blessings.

  • mercychangedmom

    I have worked as a nurse in nursing homes for the last 12 years, 9 of them as a director. There are good and bad in nursing homes, just as in everything else, you're right. But without fail, 99% of the employees in nursing homes love their people.

    Friday, a man rolled up to me, "Girl, talk to me. I'm lonely." I hear that a lot and usually spend a few minutes visiting and go back to work. Today, we went outside and sat. Him in his wheelchair, me on the ground. He was in the timber business; his wife (also my patient) died a month ago. They were married 62 years. He wishes his granddaughter would stay longer when she visited.

    The point? Sometimes what we think we need to do for someone is right; sometimes people just want our presence to be sung to, or watch tv, or sit outside. Just keep going. And try not to view nursing homes as tragically sad; we don't. Because the people in nursing homes don't change; they just get older. The funny are still funny. The mean are still mean. The spiritual are still spiritual. The gossips are still gossipy….it is most days poignant, funny, and sobering all at the same time. And everyone is welcome. Kudos to anyone.who visits. Keep doing it!

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