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First Person I want to restore fun, hope and a sense of dignity to long-term care

ILLUSTRATION BY ESTÉE PREDA

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Rolling her wheelchair down the narrow crowded halls, Daisy is heard before she is seen, “Please? Please? Puleeeeease!!!”

Half of her fellow residents ignore her, while the other half yell at her to shut up. Most of the staff pass by her as if she is invisible, immune to her constant quest for validation. I feel her pain. She’s putting words to what I’ve been feeling almost daily since I began working at this long-term care home. Three months in, I’m no more settled into my new work environment than she is, and this is a place she calls home.

I’ve transferred from a modern facility with a much more vibrant climate, I’m not used to these crowded hallways lined with residents staring blankly at one another or wheeling about aimlessly for lack of anything better to do. I can’t get used to the cockroaches scurrying across the floor of this 45-year-old building, despite frequent fumigations, and I know that if something doesn’t change soon, I’m the one who’s going to be crying out, “Puleeeeease!!!”

With no success, I’ve been looking for a resident who’s willing to stand up from their wheelchair and go for a walk. Most are either too tired, already asleep or just not interested. Resigned, I look over at Daisy and sigh. I have an idea.

“Daisy,” I interrupt mid-holler. “Do you like candy?”

“Yeeeeees.”

I inquire of the registered nurse, “Does Daisy have diet restrictions? Is she diabetic?”

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“No, she has a regular diet, but the snack cart is coming around soon. She’d be better off to have the muffin.”

I roll my eyes and look back at Daisy. “How old are you Daisy?”

“I’m 87,” she answers proudly.

I shrug. “Kinda sounds like she’s of age. Come on Daisy, we’re going for candy.” The nurse just shakes her head.

I wheel a victorious Daisy onto the elevator in our search of our Holy Grail. On the first floor it’s quieter and so is Daisy. I position her chair in front of the vending machine so she can get a good look at the selection.

“I have a pocketful of change, Daisy; pick what you’d like.”

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She scans the forbidden fruit hidden behind the glass and then points an arthritic finger at her selection.

“You want the peanut butter cups?” I ask.

Her eyes light up and she responds, “Oh yes, please!”

She watches as I put the coins, one by one, into the machine. Her face lights up as her treat drops down from its slot.

With peanut butter cups in hand, I push her wheelchair out onto the patio.

“Let’s blow the dust off, Daisy!” She makes no protest, which is a first. Normally, she’d holler bloody murder if you tried to take her out of the building. Progress.

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I find a spot for us at a table with a cheerful yellow umbrella. Curiously, she watches me unwrap the peanut butter cup and leans forward in anticipation.

I hand her the treat and caution her to take small bites.

“Slowly, Daisy!” but she gobbles it down in two seconds.

Noisily licking her fingers, she watches me savour my cup. “Wanna share the last one?” I ask as I fold up the paper wrapper.

“Yes please.” Her eyes widen as she eagerly awaits the sugary treat.

I try to break it into even halves, but I end up with the smaller of the two pieces. Oh well. This time she inhales it in one bite. As if a moment of happiness can be snatched from her hand, she has lost her ability to delay gratification. She’s become a product of her environment. A product that I’m sure Daisy would despise if she could even recognize it.

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This is something I’ve given much thought to lately in my job, as I wade through the crowded hallways, human train wrecks blocking my passage at every turn. Is this how any of these people envisioned their lives? Retired teachers, engineers, homemakers staring numbly at one another or defiantly wheeling into your path for no other reason than for you to acknowledge them.

"I was somebody important once, you know,” is spoken in a stare.

“I raised five children on my own. I kept them fed and clothed without anyone’s help,” a widow’s eyes scream in indignation.

“Just love me.” Is buried in Daisy’s “pleeeeease.”

So I do. I love on, and acknowledge Daisy and all the others who are struggling along with me, for meaning and purpose in our fragile lives. To be seen and known validates our existence. It makes the statement, “I see you. I honour your life.”

I lean back in my chair and watch Daisy take in her surroundings. Faded blue eyes squint as she looks up at a perfect blue summer sky. Her white hair that reminds me of a dandelion gone to seed, is being gently tousled in the breeze but it doesn’t bother her. She’s quiet. I sit across from her feeling the warm sun on my face and I let out a sigh. This is glorious. I’m not at my desk doing my actual job right now, but I’m doing what matters – at least to Daisy.

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Maybe I’m a slow learner or maybe it’s because I’m older than 50 – closer to the age of those living in long-term care – but I’ve finally figured out that I don’t want to be part of creating policies and procedures. I want to be part of creating joy and savouring memories. It’s simply not enough to help my residents maintain the last vestiges of independence. While this is what I’m paid to do as a restorative care co-ordinator, and I recognize that it does have its place, I am getting less and less satisfaction from it as I watch other things such as provincial standards and quality indicators constructed by people void of any emotional investment, take first place. Truly, what profit is it to gain the whole world, but lose your own soul?

There’s a book by Jonas Jonasson that tells a story of an elderly man who, on the eve of his 100th birthday, decides that the prospect of spending another year in a nursing home is untenable. He escapes and the story that ensues tells of one ridiculous adventure after another. While some critics found the story to be unbelievable and too far-fetched, I found it to be simply enchanting. If I had been written into the story, I would have been his accomplice – the one helping him bust out of the nursing home.

While I may not be in a position to help residents permanently bust out of long-term care, I can provide a temporary escape. And where does the restorative piece fit in? Easy. I am restoring fun, hope and a sense of dignity. Oh please, let there be dignity.

Monica Catto lives in Mississauga.

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