From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

Making Bright Memories for Tomorrow

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.

Albert Schweitzer

People who have known me for a long time refuse to believe that I work in a nursing facility. Certainly they would not believe how much I love my job.

They are unwilling to let me forget the years our Sunday school class held a weekly service in a nursing facility. I was always the last to volunteer. Those who have known me longest also remember when I had little patience with an elderly neighbor. I was the one who labeled all senior citizens “boring.”

That was before I met Miss Lilly. Miss Lilly changed a lot of things in my life. Since meeting her, I’ll never feel the same about the older generation, about nursing facilities, or even about life.

I had heard many negative remarks about our local nursing facility and admit I applied for a job there only because it was close to my home—thinking to myself, I could always quit. Yes, the receptionist assured me when I went to apply, they did need a nurse’s aide. “Are you certified?”

“Not yet,” I answered, wondering how in the world one got certified. Application in hand, I was directed to a sunny room. I seated myself at a table facing two dozen or more elderly ladies. They were being led in exercise by an unsmiling woman, clad in black pants and a drab, gray blouse. Her voice was a monotone. She had about the same amount of enthusiasm a gunfighter might muster up for his own hanging. I wondered what her job was. Just as I started to write “nurse’s aide” in the blank that read “position applied for,” she read aloud from a letter. “Dear Activity Director,” she read. So that’s what she was. I wrote “activity director” in the blank instead. I knew I could do a better job than that sourpuss. I knew how to smile, and my wardrobe contained plenty of bright colors.

Unemployed, I had fallen into the bad habit of sleeping late. When the shrill ringing of the telephone woke me, it was 8:05 A.M. The woman on the other end sounded cheerful and confident. “I have your application for activity director,” she said. “We are about to open a new unit. What are your qualifications?”

Trying my best to sound awake, I answered, “I used to teach school.“ I failed to mention it was elementary school and 20 years ago.

“How soon can you be here?” she asked.

I sat up straight in bed. “One hour. I can come in one hour.”

From that day on, my life changed. It is no longer mine alone. Each waking moment my thoughts are on the residents. Is Billie all right? How is Mr. W? Will Janie be back from the hospital today?

The residents fill my thoughts and they fill my heart— these lonely, fragile people who all have a story to tell and love to give. I have yet to meet one who is “boring.”

My first love was Miss Lilly, a lonely woman with only one living relative. Miss Lilly was not a pretty sight. She was a broad-shouldered woman with large hands and feet, in a near prone position. She spent her days in a blue geri chair. She drooled constantly, her large mouth often hanging open to expose several stained, broken teeth in blood-red gums. Her hair, sparse and iron-gray, had twin cowlicks that caused it to stick out in all directions. Worse yet, Miss Lilly never spoke.

I had seen her one relative, a niece, several times. Each visit was the same. Standing a few feet in front of the blue chair she would say, “Your check came, your bill is paid.” Never a personal word, a hug, or any sign of affection.

Was it any wonder Miss Lilly had retreated from what must have seemed a cruel, uncaring world? Months passed, and Miss Lilly seemed to shrink lower and lower down in her chair. Plainly, her health was deteriorating. I was staying longer and longer in her unit. I discovered she was not eating well. I gave up my lunch hour to feed her. Seeing how much she enjoyed Jell-O and pudding, I brought her extra. I talked to her constantly—about the weather, current events, anything I could think of. Sometimes I held her hand. One day, to my amazement, she spoke. “Bend down,” she said. Quickly I knelt at her side. “Put your arms around me and pretend you love me,” she whispered. Me love Miss Lilly! I had never thought about it. I gathered her into my arms and felt my heart near bursting with love.

There have been many Miss Lillys in my life since then and I know there will be others. They are the ones who need more than kindness and care; they need a little piece of your heart. I love each day of work, sharing with the residents my life, my grandchildren, my joys and sorrows. They share with me their past, their fear of the future, their families, and most of all, their love.

My wardrobe encompasses a rainbow of colors. I have dressed as everything from a clown to an Easter bunny. Pink flamingos and speckled trout have dangled from my ears. The residents love it.

I now define nursing facilities as fun houses for mature persons. They are wonderful, caring places where witty, fun-loving seniors enjoy companionship.

My mission is to use each day of their lives to make a bright memory for tomorrow. We enjoy singing, laughing and playing games as if today were all we had. Sometimes it is. I wrote these lines soon after the death of Miss Lilly:

I touched her hand and spoke her name,

the tired eyes opened wide.

I looked and saw within their depths

the loneliness inside.

I clasped her fragile hand in mine,

my warmth took off its chill.

The love she put inside my heart

I share with others still.

Joyce Ayer Brown

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