Everything I need to know I learned from my residents

Someone posted a story I Liked on Facebook about an 85-year old woman who graduated from college and already had a job offer. “She’s my new hero!” a Friend commented. That got me thinking about all the resident heroes I meet at work every day. They’re the ones who help me along the journey to having the kind of life I can look back on without regrets when I’m in my nursing home room in my senior years.

Lesson No. 1: Chutzpah

Back when I first started in long-term care, I was called upon to work with many younger residents who were admitted to the facility as a result of unfortunate incidents that occurred while they were taking a walk on the wild side. Their still-wild ways weren’t going over so well in the nursing home, but I admired how they stood up for themselves and their rights.

“Everyone knows not to mess with me,” one young lady declared, “because if they do, I’ll have a hit put out on them.” Wow!  Now that’s assertiveness! I thought to myself, as I worried about the nuances of phrasing a request to a coworker.

Yes, threatening to put out a hit on someone was on the extreme side of the assertiveness scale, but wasn’t it possible I was too far on the mild side? Those young residents helped me edge a notch or two closer to asking for a reasonable amount of what I want and need from others.

Lesson No. 2: Keep on keeping on

Nina and Roberta had a routine. In the mornings, they sat in the lobby and greeted all who entered the facility. At lunch, they went from table to table and wished everyone well before dining. In the afternoon, they visited the very ill and prayed with them before returning to the lobby to welcome the evening shift.

In a private discussion with Nina, she talked about her younger years when she preached with her sister on the streets of New York City. Nina is my role model because she lived her whole life doing what she loved, adjusting for changes along the way. 

Lesson No. 3: Live for today

“I’ve got something to show you,” an octogenarian informed me after several months of psychotherapy. “Go in my closet and take out the black bag on the top shelf.” I searched through the clutter until I found something wrapped in a lawn and leaf-size garbage bag.  Unrolling it revealed an expensive designer handbag. “My old boss gave it to me,” Lila said proudly, “I’m saving it for a special occasion.”

I stared at her, a lady who took meals in her room and kept a ratty pocketbook on her lap, and made a mental note: Don’t wait for Someday. Lila might be an anti-hero, but she was an excellent teacher.

Lesson No. 4:  Triumphing over adversity takes many forms

Each session I struggled to hear what Karen was telling me, her speech rendered almost unintelligible by multiple sclerosis. We talked about her abusive family environment and the ways her nursing home placement brought up old feelings from the past. We discussed how to handle her rage without taking it out on the staff members.

She acknowledged how her illness forced her to deal with things she would have run from in the past. “It made me grow up,” she confessed tearfully. “In some ways it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

I was awed by Karen’s willingness to work through her traumas, recognize her own part in conflicts even while she had trouble avoiding them, and show up for life though it had given her a raw deal.

Lesson No. 5:  We’re better than we realize

I admired the elaborate knitted quilt on 90-year old Virginia’s bed. “I made that a couple of years ago,” she told me. I was flabbergasted.

“You made that when you were 88 years old?!” “Yes, but the needlework’s wrong over here,” she said, pointing to a corner of the blanket. “See?”  “Virginia, all I see is a lady who made an amazing quilt at the age of 88. You rock.”

Virginia pushed the compliment aside with a wave of her hand. When I came by to visit a few weeks later, Virginia was playing a song on her keyboard. I listened for a few moments before I announced my presence.

“That’s wonderful!” I told her. “I’m just messing around,” she replied, “I can’t play any more.” “Virginia, do you know how many 90-something residents I’ve encountered practicing music in over sixteen years of working in nursing homes? One! You! You’re remarkable!”

As we discussed how we might dismiss the specialness of our talents because they come easily to us, I silently reflected on the areas in which I do the same.

Every day I learn new lessons from residents that help me keep my life on track and make it bearable to complete the mounds of paperwork that come with the LTC territory. 

What life lessons have you learned along the way?

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, the author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an accomplished speaker and consultant with over 16 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care. A long-time contributor to McKnight’s publications, this blog complements her award-winning website, MyBetterNursingHome.com, which has more on how to create long-term care where EVERYBODY thrives.