I encourage our volunteers to get outside their comfort zone, because that’s where real growth can take place. I know for me, visiting the nursing home for the first time (18 years ago) was one of the biggest steps outside my comfort zone I ever took, and it changed my life forever.
Getting out of your comfort zone can also be a big thrill. That’s why people climb mountains and skydive.
So what about our friends at the nursing home? Are they “too old” to get out of their comfort zone? Let me tell you a story from many years back, about a resident named Al Lesesne (that’s one of the only pictures I have of him). Al was a funny guy who used to tell great fishing stories. He told me the secret to catching fish was to feed the worms some onions overnight. I’ve never tried it; maybe you fishermen out there can give it a shot and report the results back to me.
I always got the impression Al was a little wild in his younger days, perhaps a daredevil. I was sitting there one day with Al and a volunteer whose name was Priel Schmalbach. I remember Priel well, though I lost track of him years ago. Maybe he’ll google his name some day and will read this story. Priel had showed up for volunteering that day with a hot thermos in hand. We inquired what was in it, and he told us that he had made some sort of “Fire Tea” that he was taking to a friend’s house. I don’t remember exactly what was in it but he said it was tea with Tabasco sauce, crushed hot peppers, and all kinds of other things you would NOT want to drink.
Then Al surprised me: “I’m not afraid — Pour me a cup”, he said. I laughed it off and said something like, “Al, you’re too old for that”. But then something got me thinking, why not? Is it going to kill him? Why can’t an old man have some fun?
We almost didn’t even ask Al’s nurse, because we were afraid she would say no. But I finally decided we better ask first, lest I have to explain to all our volunteers why I got banned from the nursing home. So Priel and I went to the nurse and explained what it was Al was about to drink. The nurse gave us a puzzled look (as in, why would anybody drink that?), but eventually she said, “Al is free to make his own decisions about that.”
Al dared me to try a cup too. Not one to turn down a dare, I agreed. So, the moment of truth. I admit, I was nervous. We filled up 2 cups, and gave a 1….2….3…CHUG! It was like swallowing hot lava. I opened my mouth and expected to see fire shoot out. Priel laughed. I glanced over at Al. His eyes were closed and sweat poured down his cheeks.
And yet, I looked deeper and saw something else on Al’s face. A look I can only describe as…pure joy…freedom…nirvana. We both felt like we could conquer the world that day, because we were brave enough to try the Fire Tea.
Reflecting on this…how rare it is for nursing home residents to get to experience these kinds of emotions! I remember another resident, Anna, at Park Meadows, who used to sit in the hall and “boywatch” (as she called it) whenever the EMTs or firefighters came in the building. Her volunteer, Kathy, told me, “Anna would wave at them as they passed by. One time, one of the EMTs smiled and gave her a wink in return, and Anna nearly melted.”
Someone who wrote the laws on what care we have to provide for our abandoned elders, decided that they need food, clothing, medication, and shelter. And they certainly DO need those things, and I’m grateful they are provided to them. And in practice, it’s difficult to write laws that provide anything more than this.
But that is not LIVING, in and of itself. If you ask around about the real essence of “living”, these are some responses you’re more likely to get:
- Being free
- Getting out of your comfort zone
- Breaking the rules
- Giving something
- Getting the Final Jeopardy question right
- Laughing so hard your side hurts and you beg your friend to stop making that face at you
- Comforting someone
- Screaming out “AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!” because you ate your ice cream so fast you got brain freeze
- Riding the mechanical bull for 8 seconds at a country bar
- Watching a scary R-rated movie
- Building something out of blocks, then knocking it down
- Eating a hot pepper
- Listening to an orchestra play
- Singing karaoke with friends who cheer you on even though you’re the worst singer on earth!
- Running to the beach just in time to catch that sunset
We often think nursing home residents are too old to have any fun. The list above wasn’t just made at random — many of those are things I actually HAVE done with a nursing home resident! Yes, including going to a country bar and riding the mechanical bull. (Clarification: he didn’t ride the mechanical bull, but I did, and he got to watch and laugh as I was thrown off.)
We are fortunate that our friends at the nursing home have the basics of life provided for them. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to provide them with a little something more.
Believe it or not, YouTube has lots of videos of cats getting brain freeze