When I was 11 years old, my mom would take my brother and me to visit my great-grandmother at the nursing home. It was a circular building, which I remember thinking looked way too cool to house a bunch of elderlies. It would have made an awesome roller skating rink.
I didn’t like to go. It scared me. Everyone looked sad. Wrinkled. Depleted. Old. As a little girl, I didn’t understand why my Grandma wasn’t in her own house. Why did she have all these roommates? No private room. No privacy at all. I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
But once we were got there, and walked through the hallway lined with patients in their wheelchairs, I noticed something. Their faces changed. They looked up when they heard our voices. They smiled. One woman patted my arm. One shook her friend, waking her up. And she too smiled. Something was making them come alive, and I realized it was us.
Once we got to my Grandma’s room, there was a line of elderlies behind us. My Grandma had told them I could sing, and they were excited for the show. Since I wasn’t a shy child, that suited me. I loved the attention. But more than that, I liked making them happy. I liked how they clapped, so enthusiastically. So proud, as if they were an extended part of my family.
I remember Annie. Her face always lit up when she saw us. My mom would always bring something home baked, and she always brought enough to share. She brought food for the staff, for the patients, for the groundskeepers. I didn’t understand at the time, but I get it now. She was thankful. She wanted to show her appreciation for them taking such good care of her Nana.
After a while I looked forward to seeing my Grandma. I looked forward to the attention from the elderlies. I came to know them. Their stories. They weren’t just old. They had lives, they had careers, children & grandchildren. They had a voice.
Years later when my Papa and then, eventually, my Nana, entered a nursing home, I was there daily. I too brought baked goods, gifts and chocolates to the staff and the other patients. I understood the importance of it. These people are mothers & fathers…they had homes, cars, independence. And suddenly it was all gone. How hard that must be to deal with. To lose your freedom and be confined to a single room, in a bed that I can imagine isn’t as comfy as the one you had at home.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, I get frustrated driving behind an elderly person. I’ll roll my eyes. I’ll be tempted to honk my horn. I mean, c’mon – I’m trying to get to Dunkin’s for a Pumpkin Latte. But then I remember my Grandma, my grandparents, and all of those residents of nursing homes, who no longer have their freedom and independence.
My Nana loved her independence. She loved food shopping. Seriously. She loved it because she loved to people watch. She used to intentionally bang her cart into the person in front of her, if they weren’t paying attention. She loved stealing olives from the salad bar, ordering a 1/4 lb. of pastrami and hot dogs from the deli.
And she loved buying bright yellow bananas. “Life it too short to buy green bananas!” She’d say. “I don’t have that kind of time!” She’d smile and wink at me. My grandmother was fiercely independent. She loved to drive, although she wasn’t good at it…like, at all. She spoke her mind, and if she didn’t like you, she didn’t waste her time. Life is too short.
Before she went into the nursing home, she was a wife, a mom, an amazing cook, a sun-worshiper. A woman of faith, with a splash of whiskey & water. She was fun and lived her life out loud. I loved that about her. And you know what?
The nursing home didn’t change her. She was still that woman. A woman with a story of her own, that a nursing home did not define.
I wish I knew then what I know now. Back when my Grandma was living in that circular nursing home. If I could go back, I would tell her that I remember her, the her before the nursing home, the grandma with her apron tied around her plump belly. Her sitting with me in my grandparent’s kitchen, teaching me how to put on socks. Singing to me, while I sat on her lap. I remember her. And I’m thankful for the legacy she created. And I will tell her story to my children.
So now when I’m standing at the checkout, and waiting for the elderly woman in front of me to count her change, or I’m trying to run up the stairs of a doctor’s office, and there’s an elderly man in front of me…I’ll offer to help. I’ll smile and say ‘hello’ – and show them the respect they deserve.
They all have a story of their own. They all have importance, and a nursing home does not diminish that importance.
And when I go food shopping I will be like my Nana and buy the yellow bananas.