After wandering the cold, damp parking lot in search of an unlocked door, I found myself moving swiftly down an expansive hallway. “232, 234, 236…” The room numbers told me I was getting warmer. It had taken a good hour to track down my dear friend, Evelyn.
A petite, silver-haired woman, Evelyn had disappeared from her home in an assisted living facility. Because of privacy laws, the staff couldn’t tell me where she was. After contacting her family, I learned she was recovering from hip surgery at a nearby nursing home. Her son, who lived in another state, agreed that she would welcome a visit.
It was early evening and approaching Christmas. The bright hall lights should have relieved some of the darkness that ascends upon Wisconsin in December. But instead, the unnatural fluorescence was overpowering. It cast a black curtain on any window it touched. All that was visible from the outside world were car headlights and street lamps, smeared on the wet asphalt.
Room, room, room, room, closet. Room, room, room, room, nursing station. I seemed to be caught in an endless loop. Even the sounds didn’t change, alternating between the monotonous beeping of machines and the murmur of primetime television. Most residents were already settling in for the evening. Doors open, I would occasionally glimpse a figure slumped over in a wheelchair. Or, a low moaning would permeate my ears. I needed to find Evelyn.
Rounding a corner, I was surprised to see a woman sitting in a wheelchair, directly in my path. She looked about seventy, but I got the feeling she lived many more years than her chronological age. Her fists were tight balls. Her knees were clamped together. Her face was pinched. A soft whimpering rose from her chest. She looked up at me. “Please help me,” her eyes pleaded.
“Absolutely,” I thought.
I slowed my pace and approached her. Bending at my knees, I looked directly in her eyes. They were hazel with green flecks. “How can I help you?” I inquired.
“I have to go!” she squeaked.
I was accustomed to my friends at the dementia care residency making preparations to go home. One of the residents was even convinced that the train pulls up, right in front of the building. But, this was different. Urgent. It took me a second. “Oh…of course! You have to use the bathroom!” I said, far too pleased with myself for unraveling the mystery.
“Yes!” she responded in exasperation.
Performing a quick scan of the area, I said, “I can’t help you with that. But, I will find someone who can. Wait here.” Wait here? Where exactly was she going to go?
I circled back to the closest nursing station. No one was there. I started glancing in rooms and listening for activity. Then, I heard a whirring noise. Poking my head through the doorway I saw a nurse in aquamarine scrubs operating a fully loaded, patient lift.
“Excuse me,” I cringed at my own interruption. The young, redheaded nurse looked up. “I know you’re busy, but when you’re done, there’s a woman in the hall that really needs to use the bathroom.”
Not offended by my intrusion in the least, the nurse thanked me for letting her know and said she would be there in a few minutes.
A few minutes? I knew this was not unreasonable. She couldn’t literally drop one patient to tend to the toileting of another. But, a few minutes can seem like eternity when one has to go. I thanked her and headed back.
“I found the nurse,” I announced when I returned. “She’s helping someone else right now, but will be here in just a couple of minutes.” Would reducing a few minutes to two minutes help? I wasn’t sure. But, I knew I wasn’t going to leave until how ever many minutes it took were up. “By the way, I’m Kerry.” I said with a smile and an extended hand.
“Judy,” she returned, unraveling her tight fist and placing her hand in mine. Judy’s skin was soft and thin, like paper. I marveled that it wasn’t torn at the knuckles.
Judy relaxed considerably when she realized I planned to stick around. The simple fact that she had someone’s attention seemed to ease her anxiety. She began to talk. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone in just a few minutes.
Judy shared that she’d been living in the nursing home for three years after experiencing a stroke at 69. Never married, Judy didn’t have children. But, she was very close to her sister who took in Judy’s beloved toy poodle. Both came to visit every Sunday. When Judy spoke of their Sunday visits, the green flecks in her eyes seemed to dance.
As promised, the nurse soon joined us. She smiled warmly and gently teased Judy for setting up a roadblock. My new friend and I said a quick goodbye. After all, we both had business to attend to.
I took a moment to reevaluate my surroundings. Glancing around, I decided there was light here after all.
Now, if only I could find Evelyn.
What Judy Taught Me:
Judy taught me that sometimes it doesn’t take much to help someone move out of a place of suffering. It wasn’t the physical discomfort of having to use the bathroom that caused Judy’s distress. Instead, it was the thought that no one knew of her need and that she was all alone.
In addition, I never know what to expect when I go on a visit. Often, I think I’m going to help someone else, but come away feeling that I received so much more in return. This evening I thought my friend Evelyn needed me. What I discovered is that I needed Judy. I needed to learn how powerful just a few minutes of connection with a friendly stranger can be.
Finally, this simple story is important because it is typical of an encounter a volunteer may have on a visit and beautifully illustrates My Why (the reason I founded New Friends).