Friday, February 11, 2011

Thinking Out Loud


I have tried for the past few days to put words to my latest attempt at connecting to myself and others here in St. Louis. I have a feeling it could be lengthy so feel free to save this for a quiet moment or fifteen...

When Sophia started back to school five weeks ago, those mornings became stark reminders of my solitude. For many reasons, the solitude has been welcome. It's obvious, though, isn't it, that those empty slate mornings have provided more opportunity for loneliness. Not frequent, but it happens. Driving home on one such morning, I noticed a nursing home - or residential care facility, if you will - and had a moment of realization. A couple of months away from constant interaction had given me a shadow of understanding of the loneliness for some of those people. I decided I could do something that would help me feel less solitary and hopefully help others feel more like themselves.

After applying and talking with the volunteer coordinator, I scheduled my orientation. I was more than pleased to find that the feeling of the home is much like an extended family, with obvious attachments between staff and residents. This particular place specializes in assisting patients with Alzheimer's and dementia.

The first two floors are filled with people who are highly functional and enjoy many normal activities. The third floor, however, is for people whose needs are more constant. I was so impressed by how the staff cared for them. I was also reminded of how varied and interesting are the people who just happened to grow old. While on the third floor, a resident who had been staring vacantly during my visit, walked to the piano, sat and began playing old standard lively tunes very well with no music. I was also introduced to a former model and a painter. It was humbling, to say the least. No accomplishments or level of success exclude you from frailty.

After our tour, the coordinator and I sat to talk about where I would be needed. I had no expectations. This is my first attempt to volunteer with the elderly. I'd be willing to drive, help with crafts, sit with people, whatever. When she asked what I enjoy, I answered honestly that I enjoy listening to and telling stories. But certainly, I would do anything that would help.

The volunteer coordinator had something specific in mind for my time. One of the residents has two children, both out of the country, many friends who are not able to visit and life experience and disposition that don't draw her to the group activities that help other residents stave off the loneliness. She went on to describe her as the most interesting person in the building - with a PhD in Philosophy, having traveled and taught all over the world. Would I be interested in sitting and visiting with her when I come in? Yeah, I think I could do that. So we went down to meet her. She was sweet and excited to have visitors. We were both excited for my impending visit.

This week, I had my first visit alone with her. It was a stranger experience than I expected. How does one get to know another person after she has already lived and experienced so much? What do I offer exactly? An ear? A window to the outside world? A hum of chatter? The hum put her to sleep. I chose not to take it personally. When I woke her so I could leave, she gushed about a wonderful visit, talking of the things we'll do next time.

Honestly, I'm not at all put off by the experience but it does case me to realize that I might not be quite as captivating as my own grandparents led me to believe. Next time, I will definitely bring my A game.

If that doesn't work, I'll bring Sophia... I kid.


  1. I think it's so great that you're volunteering your time in this way! I'll be interested to hear some of the stories you hear from the residents. I always get sad when I see old peole but they've probably had a long happy life & stories I couldn't imagine.

  2. I'll choose to take the falling asleep is a indication of comfort she felt in your presence.