Remembering our friend Ruth Hazen, 1919-2012

(The following is a reprint of an article Allison wrote about the passing of our dear friend Ruth Hazen, and the impact she had on us and this organization.)

Ruth and Peter

About 10 years ago, an article appeared in The Gainesville Sun focusing on Steve Blay and his work with Friends Across the Ages. A few days later, a lady named Ruth Hazen called. She was a member of another Gainesville area nursing home volunteer group called the Nursing Home Volunteer Auxiliary, and she was wondering if there was some way we could combine our efforts. Friends was a rather new organization which Steve and I had started only three years before. The NHVA, on the other hand, was well established, having been founded through the Gainesville Woman’s club in 1983. Ruth felt that joining the fresh energy of Friends with the experience of the NHVA would be a perfect combination. A couple of months later, Ruth’s idea was realized: in May of 2002, the two groups merged together under the name Friends Across the Ages. A new board of directors was formed, and the first board meeting took place at Ruth’s home. That was the beginning of Steve’s and my friendship with her.

I can still remember how gracious she was at that first board meeting. I was a little nervous about what she would think of us. Here was this elegant lady in her early 80’s, a beautiful woman in every sense of the word, with silver hair, pink cheeks, and kind brown eyes—and the most generous spirit imaginable. She had been retired for a long time, and had spent the past 20 years or so doing manicures each week at one of the local nursing homes, because, as she put it, “everyone deserves to feel pretty.” She made everyone present feel very welcome in her home, and what could have been a rather awkward gathering instead felt energizing and hopeful. She never seemed to have any trouble with the fact that Steve and I were in such a different places in life than she or that our backgrounds differed from hers. She treated everyone she met with the same respectful, gentle, sweet manner.

Over the years I have said many times that “I want to be like Ruth when I grow up”—and in this I was not alone. Ruth was admired by almost all of her acquaintances, and rightfully so. She lived her life with such energy and vitality. She went to the gym nearly every day to keep her body in shape because she did not wish to become a burden to others. She drove herself for visits to her mountain cabin in North Carolina through dirt roads right up until a few years before she died. She continued her volunteer work at the nursing home for as long as she could, only stopping a couple of years ago when pain in her leg made it difficult to carry on. She served on the board of Friends until 2006, at which time she retired from the board but was designated an “honorary lifetime board member” because of the inspiration and vision she had given us all.

Ruth adored babies, and was delighted when our son Peter was born in late 2005. I can still remember how Ruth’s eyes lit up when she first saw him, and her arms went out, immediately wanting to hold the baby. The picture above is Ruth with Peter, just before her 86th birthday and his 1st birthday. Peter—and later his sister Annie—called her “Grandma Ruth” and it just seemed to fit. We would stop by and visit her every so often and she would offer the kids sweets and show them the birds and flowers in her backyard. She would pick up whoever was the baby at the time and say “I’m going to get your sugar” and kiss them just under the ear while they giggled and screamed with delight. We will always remember and treasure those times.

How blessed we were that Ruth came into our lives all those years ago. How lucky we were to know someone of such integrity, vision, and grace. How sad we were to lose her this February. We will miss her so much. But we will try to learn from her example and to live as she lived, with vitality, generosity, faith, and love. She has left an incredible legacy and we will do our best to honor it.

You Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?

There is a resident named Marie that yells every obscenity in the book at me every time she sees me.  She even knows my name.  Whenever she sees me she starts out, “Steve, get your %^&$#@  @#% and furthermore #$%^#%^ $%^ $% #&$# % ^&$#  %^&$@” and every other word cannot be repeated here due to standards of decency.  I have no idea what I did to her to deserve that.

True story, she even yelled at one of the staff members, Dawn, and we found out later it was because she thought she had heard that Dawn was my wife.  That information was inaccurate but poor Dawn paid the price for it anyway.

Whenever I see Marie I think of a story that will sound familiar to some of you.  It was told quite often by Fr. John Gillespie, my pastor for 20 years, who I know is beloved to many of you on this list.

Once there was a very old man who used to meditate early every morning on the bank of the Ganges River in India.  One morning, having finished his meditation, he opened his eyes and saw a scorpion floating in the water. He reached out his hand to rescue the scorpion and was stung by it. He reached out again and was stung again. He reached out a third time and was stung yet again. A passerby yelled at him, “Fool! Why do you keep trying to rescue this scorpion whose only gratitude is to sting you?” The old man replied, “It is the nature of the scorpion to sting.  Mine is to save.  Am I to lose myself on the banks of this sacred river?”

Yep, if you’re looking for scorpions, there’s a good bet you’ll find some at the nursing home.  The aforementioned Marie is a good start.

Then there are some of the people that work there.  You volunteers know the ones I’m talking about — the “bad apples” – the nurses and CNAs that make you feel like you’re a nuisance, meddling, and just generally making their job more difficult.  I’ve had two Administrators at a certain nursing home in town scold me about where I locked up my bike – but they don’t even provide a bike rack there!

So the story tells us not to lose our nature to those scorpions in our lives.  But how do we do that?  Perhaps in some cases we can change our attitudes by looking deeper into the situation.  For example, those “bad apples” I referred to earlier – I’ve gotten to know some of them better over the years.  Some of the CNAs work double shifts to make ends meet in their household.  Would you like to lift heavy people in and out of bed and change diapers for 16 hours straight?  Neither would I, in fact I’d probably be in a pretty awful mood if I had to. 

With some people, however, we may never get to know them well enough to understand their situation.  To those people in our lives, I think the best we can do is try to focus on them as little as possible. I may never understand why Marie yells at me all the time, but I can choose to focus on all the good things that do happen every time I go to the nursing home. 

It’s really nothing more than an exercise in positive thinking.  The air around us is permeated with negative thoughts.  All the talk of currencies crashing around the world, corruption in Washington — that negative talk is really dragging us down as a nation.  I mean, the average U.S. Senator has an approval rating of what, 23%?  Is it really possible they are all that diabolical?  I think we as a nation, as a world, could really use some positive thinking. 

Back to the nursing home, and the scorpions.  Marie is my personal scorpion.  On a macro level, we have a society that doesn’t value its elders.  We have a medical system that focuses on prolonging life, instead of the emotional and spiritual needs of real people.  I don’t know if there’s much I can do about those, so I’m going to try not to focus on them.  However, as a volunteer coordinator, I’ve had the privilege of watching many of you volunteers in action over the years.  And I see nothing but positive there.  I see friendships happening, connections among people, shaking hands, listening, respecting, empathy, trust, and love.  I could go on and on.  Let’s all focus on that.  Otherwise, we might spend our visits (and our lives) focusing on the negative, which will lead to anger, and that will consume us. 

So let’s make it our New Years Resolution to think positive this year!

Keep on Truckin’ James Gainey!

Keep on Truckin'
Gainesville lost a real treasure last week, a 94 year old man by the name of James Gainey. Mr. Gainey lived in east Gainesville for many many years, in a house across from Lincoln Middle School. He told me he built that house with his bare hands, right down to laying the concrete blocks one on top of the other. If you frequented the area, you’d know he also drove a beat-up blue pickup truck, the truck being about as old as he. Being a retired truck driver, he savored his wheels. Although his driving skills had declined a little, and I was told that pedestrians would grab their kids and dogs as Mr. Gainey swerved by. Fortunately, his top speed was about 10 miles-per-hour, so you had a lot of time to react.

Mr. Gainey’s favorite place to hang out was the downtown plaza, and he could often be found there on sunny afternoons. In fact I first became acquainted with him there, through my friend Arupa Freeman, who spends a lot of time in the plaza working with the homeless. I would try to chat with him whenever I could catch him out there at the plaza, and through those conversations I found out about his other favorite place in town: The Clock.

For those of you who have never been to The Clock, it’s this 24-hour diner on Main Street. It’s part Perkins, with a twist of Waffle House attitude, and a little bit of Denny’s, if Denny forgot to shave for a few days. Don’t let me scare you off, I mean, it’s got character, which is something a lot of restaurants don’t have any more.

So Mr. Gainey and I would make an occasional trip to The Clock (trust me, I always did the driving), and I got to learn more about him, and really just enjoyed his humor and independent spirit. It was such a nice change from the nursing home, where the complete opposite of independence is the norm. We didn’t have too many of these trips to The Clock, and I regret not doing more of them, but time would slip by and I wouldn’t talk to him for weeks or months. I had just started to reconnect with him this Fall when the weather got cold, and it was clear he was having trouble walking. Something about the change in weather and arthritis and all that – everybody in the nursing home was complaining about it too. I watched him walk back and forth from his truck, hunched over and holding on to handrails or anything else in sight, and I knew it was not a good sign. I feared it could be any day when he would have a bad fall and break something, and spend the rest of his days in the hospital or a nursing home.

It was only a few days after I had these thoughts that I checked my email on Thanksgiving Day, and found a note from Arupa saying that she read in the newspaper that Mr. Gainey had died in a truck accident. I don’t have all the details but I can only assume he was driving.

Oddly though, my first reaction wasn’t sadness, but an amazing sense of gratefulness for having the chance to meet this man, and relief that he had been spared from what surely would have been a loss of independence and some rough days ahead of him. We could all only dream of being as blessed as this guy. At 94 he was still waking up in his own bed, walking out onto his own front porch to take in the sunshine, and getting behind the wheel of his own truck. I even heard a rumor that he bought a motorcycle a few months ago and had been seen riding it with a giant smile on his face. At 94!

I have some additional things to say about my experience at the funeral home the next night, but I’m going to save that for part two of this story. Until then, let’s all take a lesson from James Gainey and enjoy every day we’ve got here on this Earth. Keep on truckin’ James Gainey!

The Day I Saved Parklands Nursing Center $500,000

How does the time fly by? I just realized I haven’t written anything in the blog for months now. So as to not start out with something too serious here, why don’t I retell an old story that I think you’ll enjoy.

Did I ever tell you about the time I saved Parklands Nursing Center $500,000? The date was May 2nd, 2004, and Parklands was actually called the “Alachua Nursing Center” back then. I went to ANC with a box of Ritz Crackers that day, for a resident named Elijah Brown. He hadn’t been doing very well. I think he was 90 years old – he was slowing down and not eating well, and I wanted to fatten him up a bit. And I knew Ritz Crackers, or “Ritz Cookies” as he used to call them, were his favorite.

Anyway, it wasn’t my usual day to visit, so I intended to just drop off the crackers and leave. I found Mr. Brown in the dining room, and he only would accept half the box, so I was just going to take the rest of the crackers home. I was about to walk out the door when I saw another resident named Mitch coming down the hall, yelling at the top of his lungs. It was clear he was mad about something, big time.

Hmmm. The moment of truth. My inner conversation went something like this – “I really need to get home. I can sneak out the door; it doesn’t look like he’s seen me yet. Ok, just for a minute, let me see what’s troubling him.”

Well, as I should have expected, I got to say no more than “hello,” when Mitch started into a 15 minute laundry list of all the things he’s mad about. If my memory serves me correctly, he didn’t take a breath during the whole time. The list included:
• A certain nurse doesn’t treat him right.
• His favorite Gator shirt got stolen.
• The food is horrible (a common complaint at any nursing home).
• And how can they treat him like that when he’s the “Big Boss Man” around there!

Like any good preacher, he ended his sermon with an admonition: “COME MONDAY, I’M GONNA SUE THEM FOR HALF A MILLION DOLLARS, AND THEY’LL BE SORRY THEY MESSED WITH ME!!!”. Well, I couldn’t much think of what to tell him, so I just said I was sorry all those things happened, and I would help him look for his shirt next time I came by.

Suddenly I noticed Mitch eyeing the box of crackers. He stuck out his hand. Like the savvy businessman I am, I seized the opportunity to strike a deal — “Now Mitch, if I give you these crackers, you have to promise not to sue.” He thought about it and agreed, we shook hands, he accepted the crackers, and went on his way.

And Parklands STILL doesn’t appreciate me!!!

Steve Says, “I Hate Epics!”

I Hate Epics.

You know, those movies that seem to go on forever…Apocalypse Now, Gladiator, Gone With the Wind. Wake me up when it’s over.

Funny thing is, that’s what I’ve been telling people for years. Then when I thought about it, two of my favorite movies are epics.

The first one is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ok, I admit it, this movie appears to be nothing but people in ninja costumes flying around kicking each other. But…well, I could try to convince you otherwise, but it doesn’t have much to do with nursing homes, so I’ll save that for another time.

The second one is a behemoth of a movie from 1990 (before some of you young’uns were born) called Dances with Wolves. This Kevin Costner film won Best Picture, and clocks in at somewhere between 3 and 4 hours, depending on whether you watch the original or the director’s cut.

People who know me probably wouldn’t expect me to like Dances With Wolves. I fact I was even surprised I like it! But after some thought, I figured out why: I love Dances With Wolves because the whole movie is about communication. And those of you who have read my previous writings know, I’m a sucker for good communication.

The movie starts with Lieutenant John Dunbar (played by Kevin Costner, who directed the movie), struggling to communicate with his fellow soldiers. Later, alone on the Great Plains, he attempts with limited success to communicate with his only companion, a stray wolf. Eventually, his inability to communicate with U.S. Army Officers leads to an abusive interrogation and his eventual arrest for treason.

But in between all of this, he and the Lakota Indians have much more than a language barrier – they are both fearful of each other and have been given false information. This would have certainly led to Dunbar’s death, had it not been for one word. (Anyone remember the word?)

TATANKA!

In English, a buffalo! For me, this is the most dramatic scene of the movie. Dunbar uses “Charades” I guess you could say, to elicit this single word that bridges the gap between them.

He later remarks:

“Nothing I’ve been told about these people is correct! They are not beggars and thieves or the bogeymen they’ve been made out to be. They are polite guests with a familiar humor I enjoy. Real communication is slow, however…Most progress has been built on failure rather than success. One thing is clear. There are no buffalo. It weighs heavy on their minds.”

Wow, and all that started with one word, Tatanka. From this one word, they begin the process of communication, and Dunbar learns of their fear over the disappearance of the beast. (It is believed that 30-60 million bison once roamed the Great Plains. By the end of the 19th century, less that 1,000 survived.) Dunbar transcends from a target of suspicion and aggression, to a friend, and eventually, one who is made a member of the tribe and given a Lakota name which translates to Dances With Wolves.

I doubt there is another movie out there that more accurately describes the miracle of communication. You should watch it this weekend!

You know, as I reread that quotation above, I realize that it could just as easily be applied to our friends at the nursing home. (Ok, except the part about the buffalo). There is a lot of false information about people in nursing homes. But if we really learn to communicate with them, we might be apt to remark:

“Nothing I’ve been told about these people is correct! They are not bitter, crabby old men and women. They are loving, funny, appreciative, sincere, and sympathetic …”

I’ll say it again, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my 12 years of experience at nursing homes, and 38 years experience on this planet: communication is everything. It is inseparable from our very identity as human beings. It is secondary only to breathing. When it succeeds, communication moves mountains, conquers fears, and gives us hope. There are dozens of ads for fancy new drugs on TV these days, but true communication with our elders in nursing homes will change their lives more than any of these pills.

But communication isn’t just something you learn without effort — that’s just talking — communication is so much more. It needs to be practiced. It involves deep listening and understanding, and quite often, humility. It’s an act of giving.

Those of you who have seen me “in action” at the nursing home have remarked that I have a talent for communicating with the elderly. And perhaps I do, but it has only become apparent after years of practice. And, I must admit that I have far to go in effectively communicating in my personal life. It takes a child only a year or two to learn how to talk. We spend the rest of our lives learning how to communicate.

I miss you, Ada!

We recently lost a resident at Parklands named Ada Thurston, and I was thinking about her today. Ada was shameless – if she loved you, she was going to let the world know. Every time I would see her, the first thing she would shout was, “I LOVVVVVVVE YOU!” And she wouldn’t stop there. She would take my hand and kiss it, and say “I missed you so much!”

Allison and I usually aren’t at the nursing home at the same time, but on one occasion we were both there and we ran into Ada in the halls. Ada asked, “Who’s that?” Shyly, I replied, “Ummm…that’s my wife.” All of a sudden this heartbroken look came over Ada’s face. I felt SO bad, but then moments later the look vanished and she exclaimed, “Well, I don’t care, I STILL love you!”

Ada really took this to extremes. I kid you not, it was impossible for me to have a five minute conversation with her without her telling me “I love you!” at least a dozen times. She would sneak it into every sentence. “What did you have for dinner tonight Miss Ada?” Reply: “I don’t know, but I know that I love you!” she would shout like a preacher.

You’d think it would get annoying, but it never did. I’ll tell you, now that she’s gone, something is missing from my visits to Parklands. I miss that ego boost! For all I know, she said that to everyone at the nursing home. I don’t know, and I don’t care either, I enjoyed it just the same.

I think everyone could use an Ada in their life. In fact, I think many of the problems in the world – fighting, depression — would go away if everyone just had someone like Ada. Someone who thinks they are so AWESOME that they just have to shout it out and publicly proclaim it over and over again.

Now that you’re gone, I miss you, Ada. And I’m not afraid to tell the world…I LOVE YOU TOO!

A Link in a Chain

“God has created me for some definite purpose. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connections between persons. I have not been created for nothing.”

– John Henry (Cardinal) Newman

The phone rang last night and the callerID said “James King”. I hadn’t the slightest idea who that was. But when Allison answered and the voice said, “This is Jimmy from Claxton”, I think we both knew immediately the reason for the call. My friend Hugh had died, a couple months short of his 94th birthday. I met him the very first day I went to the nursing home, over 12 years ago now. He was the sole remaining resident that I had known from the very beginning.

Below, you’ll find a reflection I wrote about Hugh about two years ago, that I don’t believe I ever shared with anyone. I hope you enjoy it. (By the way, if you’re on the blog website, that’s his picture, second from the right at the top of the page.)

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Claxton, Georgia probably isn’t a town of which you’ve ever heard. In fact, if you have heard of it, that’s probably for one reason — fruitcake. Yes, Claxton is the (self-appointed) “Fruitcake Capital of the World”. Two of the world’s major fruitcake bakeries call Claxton home, and the town is split like the Hatfields and the McCoys over which is the better. I won’t give you my personal opinion; you’ll just have to try them both.

I sit here in Claxton as I write this. I’ve made the 3 or 4 hour drive from Gainesville many times, and not just for the fruitcake. The story behind my semi-regular road trips begins on October 6, 1998, when I first stepped into the Alachua Nursing and Rehab Center in Gainesville, and was introduced to a man named Hugh Carlisle.

Hugh was 81 when I met him, and like many men his age, he served a lengthy tour of duty in Europe and North Africa during World War II. He actually met his wife in Italy, and brought her back to America after the war (she didn’t speak any English). Other than how he met his wife, he wouldn’t talk about the war much, as many veterans don’t. He did tell me one story about a plane flying overhead and dropping bombs on a training center he was at in England, and how he narrowly escaped with his life.

After returning from the war, Hugh never had the chance to pursue any further education, and so he got a job working at the “A&P” — a grocery store, for those of you old enough to remember. He worked there for 26 years, and although he almost never gave me advice, he once told me, “Steve, I hated that job every single day. I hated it with a passion. Whatever you do, don’t ever work a job you hate like I did all those years.” He was almost in tears as he told me this, and I think it is a part of his past he has always regretted.

Hugh and his wife never had any children, and she died many years ago. Amazingly, after all he went through, Hugh is still the most gentle, soft-spoken man you would ever meet. There is no better example of this than the fact that I still call him “Hugh” — as it turns out, I found out after knowing him for several years (from one of his family members), that he goes by “Dorsey”. Apparently “Hugh” is just his given name, but he’s gone by “Dorsey” his whole life. He let me call him Hugh for years and never bothered to correct me! And I still often call him Hugh out of habit.

My friendship with “Dorsey” centered around football games at the beginning. I used to visit him on Sundays when we could watch football together, and I didn’t have to try to think of anything to say to him. Remember, this nursing home thing was new to me. I remember dreading the end of football season, because I didn’t know what else we were going to do together, and I felt bad just never coming to visit him anymore! But as football season ended we “found a way” and continued to be friends. We watched Jeopardy, talked about Classic Cars, and laughed at the crazy people on the “World’s Strongest Man” competition.

When he was 84, he met a woman named Connie in the nursing home, who became his girlfriend, and the two of them actually moved out and decided to take care of each other. It was a miracle, at least for a short while, but it quickly became a terrible situation as Connie’s mental state deteriorated, and Dorsey’s nephew Jimmy, in a moment of true compassion, drove down and rescued Dorsey and took him to Claxton. Dorsey lived with his brother-in-law for a short while before breaking his hip and having to move into the Claxton Nursing Home.

Claxton is where the real magic all began, in a way I didn’t expect. Every time I come up to visit, his family treats me like their own son. They let me stay with them as long as I want, and always cook me platefuls of southern food better than any you’ve ever had in Florida (you know, that state that pretends to be part of the south). I think Dorsey’s brother-in-law Jerome (also a widower), looks forward to my visits as much as Dorsey does. And yet, I have nothing in common with these people. Me: a Catholic city boy from Florida. They: Southern Baptists from backcountry Georgia (you know, hunting, pickup trucks, country music, that kind of thing). Believe me, they aren’t very fond of Catholics up here! And I am equally apprehensive of their culture, and to be totally honest, even have several derogatory terms in my repertoire that I use to refer to people of their type. But every time I come back from Claxton, I feel like something magical has happened there.

The words of John Henry Newman come to mind — “God has created me for some definite purpose. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connections between persons. I have not been created for nothing.” I believe, as Cardinal Newman believed, that these encounters are not “nothing”, but everything, when it comes to sowing the seeds of peace and understanding among people who come from different walks of life. Dorsey’s whole family loves the pictures of Peter that Allison gives me to send; they’ve watched him grow up from day one – yet having never met him. Our mutual love for Dorsey has united our families in a small but important way, and I think on both sides we have been permanently changed.

I’m a lucky man

(Reprinted from Jon Shinn’s reflection in “The Bridge”, the official Friends Across the Ages snail mail newsletter. Contact us if you’d like to receive it.)

“I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands, the ones I love.”

From the song Just Breathe by Pearl Jam

Jon ShinnWhen I first heard these lyrics, it struck me that the artist tied his good fortune to the number of people that he loved, rather than to those who loved him. We often think of loneliness stemming from not having anyone who truly cares about you, but it may come just as much from not having anyone who you truly care about. Our friends in nursing homes may have limited opportunities to express kindness and love to others, or may feel jaded and no longer have an active desire to express those emotions. Either way, their feelings of loneliness may be worse because they don’t have anyone to love.

As we spend time with our resident friends this holiday season, let’s remember to not only let them be objects of our love and kindness, but to also look for opportunities to help them express these emotions towards others. By doing so we may help open a doorway to the true joy of the holiday season.

Steve’s secret nickname REVEALED!

I used to work with a guy named Joe Moseley at Barr Systems here in Gainesville. Joe was the most well-liked person at Barr. I think it was because he always made everybody feel good about themselves, and made them feel important too. One of the many secrets in his bag of tricks was this: he called everybody by a nickname. He didn’t just randomly come up with nicknames for everybody on the day they started working at Barr, but if you’d been there long enough, at some point inspiration would hit him and you’d be given your official Joe-Moseley-approved nickname.

Now if you’ve ever been given a nickname, you know that they aren’t always flattering. Perhaps you were the victim of a hurtful nickname back in school, but now that those days are past, who generally calls you by a nickname? If you’re like most people, you replied, “My friends”. Sadly, most nicknames are lost when someone moves into a nursing home. They generally just get called by the name on their medical chart. It’s a subtle form of “identity theft” as I like to call it. You and I have the chance to reverse that identity theft by finding out what those old nicknames were, or, even making up our own!

If case you were wondering, my Joe-Moseley-approved nickname was “Westwood”. The joke around Barr was that it was impossible I was a college grad, since I looked like I was about 14 years old when I started working there (or so they said). So, he named me Westwood out of a reference to Westwood Middle School, where he thought I should have been.

The odd thing is, I love that nickname! To this day I don’t mind being called Westwood. That’s the peculiar thing about nicknames: the same nickname, which when given by an enemy could be extremely hurtful, when given by a friend can be a lot of fun. Joe never said a hurtful word to anyone, so you knew that your nickname was given in good fun. Sometimes the nickname had something to do with a particularly eccentric trait of yours, or a specific incident in which you were involved.

I *love* calling nursing home residents by nicknames. Some of the nicknames we’ve had for current and former residents at Parklands (I’m not even going to begin to try to explain how these came about, but I swear I’m not making these up!):

• McIvery
• High Springs
• I-19
• Mr. Buckman (not his real name)
• Miss Woods (ditto)
• Bebo
• Old Don
• Coops
• MacArthur Park
• Sammy Davis Jr.
• Bourbon and Branch
• Cochese
• Dangerman
• “The Sheriff”
• Eddie Van Halen

I’ll never forget a resident named Henry Woodard. He and his sister, Sally (“Miss Woods”), lived at the Alachua Nursing Center (now Parklands) a long while back. Henry was blind, but it never slowed him down, and he always could be found laughing and joking with everybody in the halls. There was something really uplifting about just talking to him. When he died, we went with his sister to his funeral down in Micanopy, their home town. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I picked up a program at the funeral, and it said “Celebration of Life for Henry ‘Skybow’ Woodard”. Skybow! What an awesome nickname! (I was told Skybow is an old-fashioned way of saying Rainbow). And a Skybow he certainly was in our lives. What a tragedy that we never got to call him by this wonderful nickname when he was alive! But he never thought to tell us, and we never thought to ask.

I also think about my friend Hugh Carlisle, who I met that very first day I set foot in the nursing home (October 6, 1998). A few years back he left town and moved to Claxton, GA, to be closer to his family (he’s 93 now). The first time I went up to visit him in Claxton, everybody was calling him “Dorsey”. Apparently, he’s never gone by Hugh his entire life! But that’s what everybody in Gainesville called him, simply because it was the name on his medical chart, and no one ever asked if he had another preferred name. (If I ever run a nursing home, that’s going to be the first question I ask new residents).

Anyway, the next time you’re feeling brave, just ask a resident if they used to have a nickname. And if you’re feeling really brave, try calling them by it. Or make one up! It will be up to you to judge when you’re at the right point in your friendship for that, but I can tell you it’s a lot of fun when it works, and can be very beneficial to a friendship. They’ll often reward you with a shy, giggly kind of smile, obviously thrilled to have been found worthy of a nickname. Seems like a little thing, but as we know these little things can make a big difference. So give it a shot!

Steve’s Top Five Tips for Successful Nursing Home Visits

I primarily plan to write in a more narrative fashion, but I thought perhaps before getting into anything too deep I would present to you some more general observations that might prove useful to anyone who visits someone at a nursing home.  I’ve learned a thing or two over the last 12 years about making your nursing home visits more successful.  So, here you go, here are…

 STEVE’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL NURSING HOME VISITS

  1. Sit Down – This tip alone is worth the price of admission.  There is no greater non-verbal way you can communicate your intentions to just visit than by sitting down.  All day long, nursing home staff shuffle in and out of patient’s rooms.  These rarely have much time to visit; they complete their tasks and are out the door.  A person who sits down has intentions of visiting.  They aren’t rushed or impatient.  They are relaxed and comfortable; all things that make the “visitee” feel special.  Now, at several of the nursing homes in town, chairs are a scarce commodity.  Just do the best you can.  Sometimes you might have to sit on the bed, or in their wheelchair (if they aren’t occupying it at the time!). I even knew one volunteer who brought her own chair. 

  2. Knock – I must admit it, I don’t get this one right often enough.  I always seem to forget until I’m already walking in.  But when we consider that this is their home…well, how do I like it when people just wander into my house unexpectedly?  Knock, announce who you are, and wait for permission to enter.  Of course they’re going to say yes, but it’s a nice gesture of respect.  (Interestingly, you’ll often see the nursing home staff fail to knock, even when the door is closed, yet this is part of resident’s rights – Florida Statute 400.022(1)(m) – it’s the law!)
  3. Ask about 1 thing from last time – Recall something from your previous conversation and bring it up the next time you visit. It’s an easy way to show you were paying attention.  “You mentioned your daughter Sylvia was coming over on Saturday, did you have a nice visit?”.  “Last time we talked, you started telling me about your first job at Sears…tell me more.” (This tip will help you everywhere in life, not just at the nursing home.)
  4. Wikipedia is your friend – this goes right along with the previous one.  As Wikipedia has evolved over the past decade it’s done wonders for my nursing home visits.  Don’t know a lot about history?  That’s ok, Wikipedia has over 3,000,000 articles, orders of magnitude more than a traditional encyclopedia.  So, your Friend at the nursing home was born in Cairo, Georgia?  Ask Wikipedia and you’ll find out it’s the also the hometown of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and it’s known as the “Syrup capital of Georgia” (road trip!).  Or say your Friend tells you they drove a LaSalle in 1938.  A LaWhat?  Excuse me?  Don’t worry, Wikipedia has six different pictures of the LaSalle, a high-end GM car from 1927 to 1940.  Bring some printouts with you next time you visit. 
  5. Set Boundaries / Limits – You’d think this one is just important for you, but it’s really important for both of you, because friendship is a two-way street.  True friendships are made when we are honest about our limitations.  So if your Friend at the nursing home is calling you several times a day, or making you feel guilty about not visiting more often, it’s time to have an honest talk with them about what you are capable of.  You’ll be better friends for it – the problem is, if you don’t have that talk, you are eventually going to start resenting them, and not enjoying your visits any more, and then you might just stop visiting altogether.  So be honest and you’ll both reap the rewards. 

 Well, I hope that was useful…let me know if it was!

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