Can we talk about old people for a minute?
In all the old stories, it’s common to find a wrinkled old sage, directing the young hero on to victory. These characters always fascinated me. Where did they gain all their wisdom? I always thought the sage’s story might be more interesting than the hero’s. They must have gotten their wisdom somehow. But how? What incredible stories led to the deep lines in their face, their hobbled walk, their profound wisdom?
What if Gandalf was in your town’s nursing home?
I started volunteering at a nursing home this week. Everyone was in having dinner when I showed up, so I wandered to the Long-term Care unit. I poked my head into a room and, after waiting till a terrible, hacking cough ended, asked for Ellen.
A nurse introduces me to Ellen, and I wheel her to her bed. I awkwardly try to wedge her wheelchair into the cramped space by her bed so we can talk. It’s dim. I ask her if she’d like the light on.
“Well, what do you want?” she asks, “I can see fine”. So, we sit in the semi-darkness, crammed between her bed and the curtain, and talk.
She looks at me, sort of confused.
“Why do you want to talk to me?”
The question catches me off guard. I fumble through an answer. Why do I want to talk to her? Well, I’m new to the area, and I want to meet people. Which is true. Is it appropriate to tell old people that I just like old people? Is that rude?
Later, another nurse directs me to Ginnie, who’s sitting with another lady by the communal fireplace. I ask if I can pull up a chair, which the other woman enthusiastically nods to. Ginnie is sharp, I can tell that immediately. She looks at me a bit critically.
“So, you want to talk to me, eh?” she asks, clearly, “What for?”
I have to talk loudly and close to her ear. She’s taken out her hearing aid already. Again, I awkwardly stumble through my answer. I let it slip that I like old people, and (thankfully), she says “Eh?”, and motions for me to speak closer to her ear. I talk about being in nursing before, in geriatrics, and how I loved working with the people there. She catches onto that, and seems to approve.
Driving home, I thought about their question though. Why did I want to come talk to these women?
I’ve volunteered in nursing homes since I was in High School, and always loved it. I decided to go into nursing after High School so I could do geriatrics. When I told my nursing instructor, she thought I was crazy.
“Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard that before,” she said, raising an eyebrow. Apparently, most get into nursing for pediatrics or med-surg – something like that. Then, there’s me. That odd one who likes old people.
I hadn’t ever thought why until today. Why do I want to talk to them?
You walk into a nursing home and see an ocean of white hair and wheelchairs. But, those eyes –drooping with wrinkles – have seen incredible things. Annie? She married a doctor and raised her children in the backwoods of the Panama Canal. Ginnie has gummy dentures, but still wears red lipstick, and tells me about her flashy, metropolitan life in San Francisco. Rosie’s wrinkled hands tremble as we shake hands, but those same hands created the beautiful paintings in her room, which once hung in Chicago galleries.
We don’t tend to see the elderly as wise sages anymore. They sit in nursing homes, often in silence. All those stories – surely, some wisdom – quiet, silent inside these wrinkled old remnants of the past.