Back in July, I started a part-time job in a nursing home across the bridge on the North Shore, up in West Vancouver. It’s a long-term care facility, which means that many if not most of the residents I interact with have dementia. Some of them are pretty mobile and cognizant, but some sit in the same spot all day in a hallway or by a TV, needing help to eat, to use the toilet, to move from wheelchair to bed and back again.
I spend a lot of time wiping off chipped polish with acetone and repainting nails in colors that make ladies feel like themselves, walking slow, bent folks down long corridors to and from precious COVID-time family visits. Sometimes I sit by someone and fill in a mandala with bright colored pencils or scoop ice cream while dozens of eager faces line up, eyes fastened to the tub of butterscotch. Sometimes I just crouch and hold a hand. I’ve never been so frequently snapped at or so frequently thanked without really deserving either.
Inglewood has over 200 residents and on the weekends when I work, alongside the medical care staff, there are usually only four or five recreation staff members like me around, so I spend a fair amount of time rushing from place to place. The residents watch as I pass them by. Some smile and wink at me, though they no longer have the cognitive capacity to learn and retain my name. Others sometimes call out as I go—thoughts many of us harbor anxiously in the back corners of our minds all our lives, but which have now become so central to them in these final years that they speak them aloud in desparation. Can you help me? This is such a long hallway. I need to go to the washroom. I live here? What should someone do who feels lost? Will I be okay? What’s next? Then when will I go home?
They’ve returned, some of them, to watching adult life from the sidelines, like children crouching at the top of the stairs when they’re supposed to be in bed, catching glimpses of what goes on in the party below through the slats in the railing, trying to make sense of what is happening and why they are no longer able to participate. Inside these people, of course, are decades’ worth of their memories and lives and skills and selves, which still flicker out of even the most confused in occasional bright flashes. One lady I walked back to her room in her closed unit spoke to me nonstop in Romanian, and kept hugging me and kissing me as if I were family. She gave hugs as if she’d given thousands and would never lose the talent.
It is easy and often sweet when talking about old age to draw upon these vulnerable, childlike images. In fact, the comparison with childhood is nearly unavoidable, because the similarities of need, fragility, and even innocence are so obvious. And to think like that helps us to care for our elders with gentleness and patience. But there is a glaring, uncomfortable difference between the old and young with which we must reckon.
Neither the very old or the very young are “useful” or have anything of practical value to contribute to the world—they are, in fact, a drain on tangible resources and energy. However, our culture understands that children make this worth our while because they are bursting with potential—tomorrow, we hope, they will serve their community in great and glorious ways. But what about these toothless folks with ninety years to their name seated on blue incontinence pads in their wheelchairs? What’s the point of them? What work will they do? They have no potential. They’re all used up and many of them, painfully, know it.
This hard truth must be faced because none of it is theoretical. This is our parents, our grandparents, and one day it’s us.
A few weeks ago I brought a tiny old lady named Belva downstairs for a visit. We were a few minutes early and since this wasn’t her regular unit, I took her around for a little field trip. We went out into the back garden to see the bright flowers, which made her light up, and we returned more than once to the large cage of colorful, twittering birds just inside the main lounge. As she stared at them, she whispered to me, “Oh, this is a good place.” And it was a very good place indeed, I could see. It was a place which had no time for measuring the relative usefulness of Belva or of her birds or even of me, young and productive as I am. Her place contained only the beauty of the moment and the joy inherent in existence. She was awed by the birds, and then twice over, she was awed by the automatic door when I pressed the button, and applauded as it did its work. She said that it was “wonderful.”
The work of the aged, the point of them, is the same as the ultimate central point of all of us. They have been made, and now their work is merely to be. Humans were made not to produce, but to be, just as hands, I am increasingly beginning to think, were made for holding. Hands are useful and important in a myriad of other ways, certainly, but to be held is their highest calling.