It was all I could do not to pass out. I felt the familiar anxiety-induced tingling sensation running through my brain I’ve come to know too well in recent years. The pungent, stale air brought over a wave of nausea that I fought to get under control. I had just wandered through a labyrinth of linoleum floors, cluttered with food carts and mopping pails. I waited for a crowded elevator that stopped on every floor before my destination with no one getting on. Whatever good I was about to offer was losing the mental battle that wanted me to bolt to the nearest exit. But it had taken fifteen minutes just for me to get an elevator to take me to the seventh floor of this home for the aging. The definition for “subacute unit” as offered in my Google search the night before was mild in comparison to what awaited me.
In my latest effort to improve myself and give to others, I’ve committed to volunteering at least once a week. And for this week, the task at hand was to provide manicures and pamper seniors in a “subacute unit.” When I made it to the recreation room, there were eight seniors in wheel chairs (some more conscious than others) and two volunteers. An episode of “Family Feud” blared throughout the room, though only one senior and an employee seemed to be engaged.
“Name a place that’s hot, crowded, and smelly,” the host declared. The clearly suburban female contender on TV quickly piped in, “The mall!” She received a blaring, red X, while her competition scored the number one answer, of the “subway.” If the word “crowded” was omitted, the room we occupied may have scored the number one spot. The heavy air reeked of bodily fluids, decay, and a salty-rich smell I could not identify. I joined the two other volunteers and leaned against a cracked window, taking what little fresh air I could and now grateful for the same winds I bemoaned on my walk to the nursing home as they provided a sliver of relief. I ran through all the possible positive thoughts I could to somehow quell my dizziness and discomfort. I imagined myself or a loved one being in their position and envisioned how I would like to see us treated at that stage of life.
Our team leader entered. She was an older woman herself, smiling broadly and toting her own portable seat. Her energy transformed the room and she calmly took my hands and warmly greeted me.
“Thank you for coming today. We’re here to treat all our special ladies and gentlemen like kings and queens. Some of them may communicate with you, but some will just sit and enjoy being pampered. We’re here to show them love through touch.”
Love through touch. My mother has always been a touchy person. In fact, she puts such intensity behind it that I’ve been known to squirm and resist. I’ve never been comfortable with it. But she is a natural caregiver. She can handle bodily fluids, sick people, and the down and out with a loving, calming connection that was not passed on to her eldest daughter. This was one of the reasons I opted for an experience that would take me completely out of my comfort zone and push me to be more comfortable with the uncomfortable. To connect, to be aware, and to appreciate all that I have.
“You may notice the smells,” our leader continued. Thank God, I wasn’t the only one. “All of our guests are in diapers and they may need to be changed. But if you can stand the smell, we won’t be here for very long and if they have to leave right away to get changed, well, then they miss out on being pampered. So do the best you can.”
Amen. In a moment like this I needed the honesty and encouragement. I was assigned to a woman with snow white hair, who acknowledged me but could not speak. I carefully removed her nail polish, which already appeared immaculate in spite of being a week old. I couldn’t go two or three days without having to completely redo my own. I remembered how much I envied my great grandmother with her long, tough-as-steel fingernails. She used to always complain they needed a trim all the while I spent money buying potions to make mine like hers.
There were moments when I was overcome by the smell and the warmth of the room. When I felt anxious to be holding a stranger’s worn hand, as she kindly would look to me and let me do whatever I needed to. Her vulnerability frightened me. I did not know this role very well. But I committed myself to doing the best manicure I could. I left her with a vibrant shade of pink on her strong, long nails. And I left the nursing home with a new spark aglow within me. I may not ever get to the level of caregiving my mother offers the world, but I can feel myself expand just a little more each time I volunteer. As much as the studies conclude our personalities are essentially set in stone between 25 and 30 years of age, maybe there is a chance to change if we are willing. Or so I’m trying to prove this year.