I started visiting the nursing home when my nana and granddaddy were there. After they passed away, there were so many people I had become close to , that I just couldn’t stop going. I remember the moment I realized I could not leave everyone in the nursing home with no one. If I didn’t go then no one would ever visit. For the year I visited my granddaddy 3 times a week, I noticed those who never had visitors.
They were forgotten.
I started visiting the forgotten. At that time my daughter visited with me. They all adored her. We would bring our dogs which were puppies then. Between my daughter and the puppies there just seemed to be a light again where there were just blank faces before. My daughter and I listened to everything they said, their favorite things. We’d go home and print pictures to hang on their walls of their favorite places or animals. My daughter would make necklaces for them out of huge beads that they treasured like diamonds!
One Halloween she wanted to show off her costume to those in the nursing home. They were all so excited that she then wore a costume everytime we went to visit. She’d show her dance recital moves and costumes. We became their family. They became part of our hearts.
The more we went the more we noticed. There were food trays just out of reach of their hands. Water glasses without straws and no ability to lift the glass. Wearing soiled clothes. Waiting for an hour to be helped to the bathroom. Then it hit me that they never left their rooms! I started rotating making sure each had time outside. I started going room to room and pushing their trays closer. Small things to us. Huge things to somone who was hungry but couldn’t reach their food. What is tiny to one is monumental to another. I gave one her water and held her straw while I watched her parched lips drink as much as she could take. I had no idea how long she’d been without water. I reported the nursing home more times that I can remember.
My daughter started kindergarten and I became a staple there at the nursing home. I was feeding, changing, listening, loving, and sitting outside listening to the birds with each person. I remember each of them. I remember their names, their stories, their family histories. As one passed away, another just appeared that had no one. Some had family that came to visit on occassion. I heard then that I was known as Stephanie. Some of them had told their families that “Stephanie “visited. Bethany and Stephanie were pretty close and I didn’t have the heart to correct any of them. I was called Stephanie so often that I just took on that name. It was even lovingly shortened to Steph. One woman had dementia. She did not know her own family at all. But she knew me, Stephanie. What a gift.
Some needed words, some wanted to hear about anything I could tell them about my life and daughter. They wanted distraction. Some wanted me to hold their hand in silence. Some wanted hugs and just human touch. Some wanted prayer.
What really struck me is their stories. The war, poverty, food rations, racism, and abuse. They shared stories with me that they had never told another soul. They spoke of rape and incest. My heart opened up to them on an entirely different level. I knew what feeling alone was. I knew what abuse felt like. I knew what keeping it a secret felt like. Some only confessed their secrets their last day of life.
Being with them filled my soul. I mattered to them. And they mattered to me.
They were neglected. The simple and basic needs were ignored. I would get there and every call light would be on and all the CNAS were in a room watching a soap opera. It became increasingly frustrating watching them suffer unnecessarily because of such neglect. The abuse and neglect was unbelievable. One day my daughter and I were visiting. One person we visited wanted a picture of my daughter and her. As I walked in I saw a woman bloodied in the dining hall and later outside her room. No one cared. She had picked at her nose and was covered in blood. Covered head to toe. The woman in the room next to her was laying face down with her face smothered in a pillow. Two doors down a few weeks before a woman was screaming because a CNA was ramming her wheelchair into the bed. I just spontaneously started taking pictures. I wanted to document what I couldn’t stand to see anymore. I wanted to scare them so they knew they couldn’t do this anymore because I now had proof of the neglect and abuse.
My daughter is 19 now. Last night she said, ” Mom, remember when we ran from the police at the nursing home when I was 7?” Yep. I still remember. The manager tried to take my camera and call the police. In reality the police I doubt were ever called. It was just a threat to scare me into giving up my camera.
But my daughter remembers. She remembers the names of each person we visited. She remembers collecting all of her dolls for one lady who only wanted baby dolls. And she remembers when the manager of the nursing home announced over the loud speaker that the police were called on “Stephanie” and that she needed to “hand over the camera”. So we RAN!!! The next time I visited I was told I was nolonger allowed to go into anyone’s rooms. I had been going there for 5 years at that point. I had to find a way. It didn’t take long for me to come to hospice. If I were associated with hospice then I could go in anyone’s room and I would have even more ability to get them what they needed! I put in the hours to become a volunteer and then decided to become a volunteer chaplain for them as well. With that came a name tag. That said Bethany. So now everytime I went to visit anyone who knew me as Stephanie, I had to turn my name tag around so they didn’t ask why it didn’t say Steph.
NOW, those that I loved most, who became in hospice care, I could make sure that all their needs were met and I didn’t have to be the only one taking them to the bathroom and feeding them.
Being in hospice care gave them dignity.
I learned that being a chaplain did not always mean I was there to pray. I was there to do whatever they needed me to do even if I wasn’t actually supposed to be helping them go to the toilet. I learned how to change bandages for bedsores too. Being a chaplain for me meant being to them what no one else wanted to be and doing what no one wanted to do and listening to things no one else cared to. Since I wasn’t being paid I could stay there with one person for five hours if I wanted to and I often did.
I can’t mention anyone’s name for confidentiality purposes. But their names remain in my heart. Hundreds of blessings I call them.
That nursing home announced my arrival everytime I got there after the alleged police situation ( because the police I’m pretty sure we’re out saving lives and not concerned about a girl with a camera trying to protect the abused) yet they could not keep me from coming so I considered that a great victory. It was a victory that I was not stopped from seeing these people who were now a huge part of my life. As soon as everyone that I had become attached to over the last 8 years had passed I asked to be switched to other nursing homes and in home care. My daughter wasn’t allowed to come with me anymore because as a hospice volunteer that would not have been appropriate. She wasn’t too keen on going back anyway after running away. But she saw that I, her mom never stopped going and never gave up. And those years that she went with me taught her what the really important things in life are.
What are the really important things? Being listened to. Being loved. Feeling worth. Feeling worthy of love. Knowing that you will not be left alone. Knowing that you will not be forgotten. The little things…Taking someone to sit in the sun who hasn’t felt the sun on their face in the five years they had been put in that nursing home. Watching someone hear a bird for the first time in years and seeing tears roll down their face because without you taking them they never would have had that moment.
I was Stephanie for 8 years.
Every person that I ever encountered in those nursing homes enriched my life.
So often we feel lost. So often we lose the meaning and purpose in our lives. When you’ve been abused you can feel forgotten yourself. If you find others who have been forgotten and you give THEM meaning and worth again, it will heal you equally.
In those 8 years of volunteering I found myself. In loving them, I learned to love myself. They always told me how much it meant to them because I Never gave up and never stopped coming. But I was the one honored to be loved by this forgotten group of people. Honored to have heard about their lives. Honored to be trusted enough to tell their secrets to. Honored to restore the dignity they deserved. Honored to be loved by what society had just discarded. It was a time my daughter and I will never forget.
Help to heal others and you will find healing yourself. It is an inevitable truth.