I graduated with a BA and started my first job a month later, reporting for duty at 6am at a swanky assisted living facility by the beach, on the memory-impaired unit. I did not know what I was signing up for, and that is a great lesson after spending four years and thousands of dollars on an education.
My interpretation of the job description was sitting with sweet old people and listening to their childhood stories because those were all they could remember. I saw myself caring for geriatric residents like I had cared for my grandfather before he passed away.
Reality had me putting on an apron, stuffing it with handfuls of latex gloves and hand sanitizer, and trying to keep up with the guy I was shadowing. He showed me how to get a man in his 70s with dementia out of bed and dressed, how to put socks on inflexible feet with jagged nails, and how to shower someone who definitely did not want to shower. I listened to residents repeatedly say they wanted to go home and ask where they were.
That was just the beginning. Other days and nightshifts saw me checking diapers at 2am, trying to clean a patient who could not move unassisted, and witnessing a “time of death” call when another resident passed away. Even at 87, she was beautiful, and she died alone. The other caregivers were gentle Filipino ladies and younger kids who made passing jokes about the people they were helping.
It hurt my heart to hear those 20-somethings mocking old men and women who could not toilet themselves but still had the wherewithal to protest. No one wants to be lowered to a toilet seat and wiped by someone else. I went through mountains of baby wipes, diapers, and gloves, my morale fading with each shift.
Other than the back strains, the graveyard shifts, and the one track of 1950s music, I was haunted by this oppressive question of what meaning remains for a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s or dementia, locked away with strangers, a television, and a fish tank. I asked God how this could be right and did not wait for an answer.
I saw the looks of confusion and suffering in the residents’ eyes, especially those who could barely mumble and could not walk, and asked God why this would happen at the end of someone’s life. Why go through all the work and struggle to raise families or chasing dreams when this was the final destination?
Ah, but it is not the final destination. I do not know the purpose for the trials we go through, but my first job out of college cemented my belief that the little things in our lives add up to end-of-life legacies. My experience is that we eventually show who we really are when we lose our mental or physical faculties or find ourselves in chronically stressful situations. I learned the truth of Luke 8:17 when it says, “For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” (NLT)
The small choices I make in life – whether to protect someone’s dignity or tear it down, whether to hold a grudge or forgive, whether to lie or be honest – determine who I am when I cannot put on a good face anymore. I only lasted a month in the job, but left with a richer education.