The American Health Care Association (AHCA) has announced that this week, May 13 – 19, is National Nursing Home Week. The theme for 2012 is: “Celebrating the Journey”. This week is designed to recognize individuals in long-term care settings and the dedicated staff who care for them. It encourages every resident of a nursing home to live life to the fullest.
This observance hopes to involve families, community members, youth and others in a wide-ranging show of support to residents in care facilities. The AHCA hopes that this week will encourage volunteerism and intergenerational contact. Over 1.5 million Americans live in nursing facilities, assisted living residences, and homes for persons with developmental disabilities.
I served as a volunteer chaplain at the DuPage County Convalescent Center in Wheaton, IL, for almost ten years. I learned many lessons in my years of service, but the most important lesson was that the individuals I worked with should be treated with dignity. I quickly realized that these were people with full lives - many experiences and much wisdom, courage and love.
My job was to provide church services for them on Saturday mornings. I learned to respect everyone’s wishes, and never talked anyone into attending our services. I was always happy to help others come to our services, and learned to maneuver wheelchairs fairly well. I had regular attendees who were advanced in age and others who were closer to my age – I was in my early thirties at the time. But the joy and love I felt for each one I met was certainly not dependent on age.
I remember one Saturday, a regular church attendee had her head in her hands. When I approached her, she smiled at me, but said she was quite ill. I told her that she did not need to attend church services, but she insisted. I brought her to the service with the most tender care I could, and I kept her in my prayers during that service. After the service, she lifted her arms, gave me a hug and thanked me profusely. She said she felt well.
A smile is certainly worth a million words, and for those patients who could not talk, I would speak slowly and wait for a sign of recognition. It usually came. My co-volunteers and I looked beyond the physical difficulty to see the child of God. This was far from depressing work – each Saturday was filled with God’s joy and peace. I have always felt that prayer is health-giving. As I prayed throughout my years there, I felt I was in a small way helping everyone to do the best they could.
One year, I even booked the community band I played in to do a Christmas concert for this facility. It was well received. What fun it was to see the residents sing and clap to the beat while they enjoyed the music.
Thinking back, I received more than I gave when volunteering at this nursing facility. I worked very hard to treat every patient with dignity and respect; and in return I was given smiles, waves, hugs and tears of gratitude. The funny thing about dignity and respect is that when you give them, they return in the most wonderful ways.