For a few days each week I visit with my hospice people, several of whom are in nursing home situations, and most of whom are living in the liminal space we call dementia. I have been visiting nursing homes in various capacities: chaplain, half of a Therapy Dog team, and just plain friend, since I was in my early 20s when I was seeking, perhaps. the grandparents I never had. Or maybe it's not that deep, maybe there are no layers of psychological mystery to it; I simply like being with old people.
They're funny. They have plenty of time; they give you their undivided attention—what's left of it, anyway. There are never any cell phones sitting on the table when people are gathered in the common rooms in nursing homes. Life is slow, and sad, of course. Many of these folks are waiting for the ride that will never come to take them back to the home they never stop missing. Nursing home employees are overworked and underpaid, so they don't have time to sit with all of the lonely people in their care. I don't understand how it has come to this, that we warehouse the people in our society who hold the stories and the wisdom, the ones who taught us and cared for us and guided us, fixed our cars, fought in our wars, drove our busses, prepared our meals and delivered our mail.
I understand the outrage many are feeling now in regards to what's happening in Washington, but I often find myself wondering why there's no outrage around things like the inadequate, often neglectful care of our elders, insufficient housing for those in mental and economic strife, lack of access to decent transportation for those in poverty. These are issues we face every single day and have for as long as I can remember. I have never seen marchers outside of any of the nursing facilities I visit, clamoring for more humane conditions for those inside. And believe me when I tell you, if you visit one of the nursing homes in Rutland, Vermont where the denizens are on public assistance, you would hold your nose because of the stench, you would be surprised by what passes for dinner, you would wonder why anyone would work there. You would be angry.
I am not inclined to march; I don't like crowds. I'm not one to shout or to make a sign letting the world know how upset I am. I am upset, and I'm curious and hopeful. The new Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is the cousin of one of my oldest friends, Jeff Gorsuch. I have known Jeff for thirty years, since we went to St. Lawrence together, and I adore him. "Smart and good man, free thinker and bright," is how Jeff described his cousin to me on Tuesday evening. I have to believe him. I have to have hope for this world. But most of my hope lies in the folks who choose, all the time, to act where they see injustice, and not just when it's popular, not just when it makes for a good Facebook photo. My hope lies in the people who choose to move to the fringes of society, to advocate for the voiceless, to find the time to care for those no one else cares for.
So no political activism for me, but I could sit in a smelly nursing home, talking to dementia patients all day. Maybe it's a form of activism, going places no one else wants to go, hoping to make things a little better, speaking up for the old people when they are hungry or tired, holding their hands when they are lonely or scared, which is pretty much all of the time.
They're funny as hell, my old people friends.
Me (to Darla, who spends her time staring out into space): It's almost Valentine's Day, you know! They've changed the wreath on the front door. They took down the Christmas wreath and put up a Valentine wreath.
Darla: Well. That's progress.
It is progress. In the context of a world that barely changes from day to day, save for the ever-flowing river of death that runs through these places. People go there, they wait, and then they die.
And in-between they are kind and funny and present and lonely. Jack told me my vest was beautiful the other night; Alice warned me to "drive slow!" when I was leaving. Katherine prayed quietly with me and then invited me to come back "any time you're in the neighborhood." They don't remember the names of their kids, they have no idea where they are or what day it is, but they are still alive and so we have an obligation to care for them. Please, if you can, spend an hour a month holding the hand of one of the beautiful treasures of this world. I'll bet there's a nursing home not far from where you are right now. Amen.