I'm a registered nurse with a 30-year passion for senior care and advocacy. For the last 8 years I have owned and directed Visiting Angels, a private duty homecare agency in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is my honor and privilege to work with seniors and their families in my community.
My love of the elderly began when I started to work as an aide in a nursing home when I was 17. There are many patients I still remember and think about 30 years later.
One of them was a lady--I'll call her "Ann"--who couldn't speak or do anything for herself. She quietly lay in bed day after day. Ann never had a visitor, so I knew nothing about her.
One evening our assignment was to clean our residents' closets and drawers. While I was working in Ann's room, I found a box. In it were no less than 30 letters and cards. I sat on the floor and started to read them, tears falling from my eyes. They were love letters from a husband to his wife. Never had I known, or even heard about, such profound and amazing love. This woman, lying there alone, seemingly unloved, had actually shared a fairy tale love, rare and amazing, with an adoring spouse.
It was through these letters that I got to know a patient who couldn't tell me anything about herself. Learning about her life allowed me to have a special relationship with her. As far as I knew, her deceased husband was all she had, and now I felt more responsibility to care for her, for him.
From time to time I would read his letters to her. I don't know whether Ann could understand--or even hear--anything I said, but I felt that her spirit heard and understood.
My three-decade passion has been based on empathy. Can you imagine being in Ann's shoes? Can you understand what it must be like to have lived a fairy tale life with a best friend, experience a love like no other, only to lose that person and decline to the point where you're alone and unable to care for yourself?
Ann's is not just one story. It's one of countless numbers of stories. There are thousands of elders living in nursing homes, alone and unable to care for themselves. What kind of care do they get when their healthcare workers know nothing about them, and don't even think about what their lives were like before they ended up, helpless, in a nursing home?
I know from my own experience that patients like Ann are not even talked to or treated with the compassion that is essential to providing good care. Instead, they're just work to be done rather than care to be given.
It is up to us as a society to understand that there is a person and a life Behind the Old Face.