“Who’s Who” in the Nursing Home
I was volunteering at Lexington Terrace Assisted Living Facility in Florida. My best friend Lauren and I volunteered there for a few years to boost up the extracurricular section on our resumes (also because we care deeply for the elderly and stuff). Lauren and I were game coordinators/waitresses/cleaners/sit in the corner and talkers. We would walk around and take the food and drink orders of all the elders. They only had like three choices a day and I always felt the most bad for the ones who had thickened juice forced upon them. (I know you’re probably thinking, “What’s so bad about thickened juice, isn’t that just like a smoothie?” …It’s not like a smoothie). Since old people love spumoni almost as much as they love hangman, we would eat ice cream (I would have chocolate, because spumoni sucks) and then Lauren and I would set up a game table where we would play Bingo and Hangman on repeat. (Quite literally on repeat, the only word we would ever use in Hangman was “Lexington Terrace”), and every time, they would be surprised when they didn’t get it, or congratulate the lucky patron who finally did. They could win things like slippers with the little grippy pads on the bottom…or cartons of spumoni.
We met quite a few interesting characters during our time at Lexington Terrace.
There was one woman named Bess, who broke my heart almost every day. I would always find her in the corner talking on the phone, getting obviously flustered that she couldn’t reach her sister. Her sister had died a few years previous, yet Bess could no longer process that in her memory. She would sit there talking, and get really irritated about why the phone wasn’t working. Sometimes she would even leave a voicemail for her sister, asking her to call her back, etc. It was heartbreaking.
Lauren and I spent a lot of time with Bess. We would let her make her phone call, because it was part of her routine, and when she was finished, we would often go sit by her and ask her questions about her life. Sometimes she would feel like talking to us, and sometimes she would say “Not today” and wheel her chair back to her room. But every day, we asked, and I would like to think she appreciated that we did. Sometimes, I would take Bess out for a wheel. I’d push her around outside and we’d talk about her favorite flowers (Marigolds) and then we’d go back inside and we’d take laps around the hallway and I would always make jokes about setting up a wheelchair race. I told Bess she would win, and she would look down and blush and say things like, “Oh, you,” which I loved. Sometimes we’d roll past Willard’s room for a little excitement.
Willard was an interesting fella. When Lauren and I first arrived, we were told not to speak to him, which instantly intrigued me because I love talking to old people, especially the misunderstood ones. Willard only had one eye, which was a little unnerving, because he didn’t wear a patch sometimes. He would just sit there with no eye. But then I thought about Bess and how lonely these people must feel sometimes and if you have no eye, I just imagine that makes things a whole lot worse. There’s something about a missing eye that just gives you an “unapproachable” vibe, and if you happen to also be wearing a diaper, some people just aren’t into it. I spent a few days watching how the nurses and other employees interacted with Willard. I would just stand in the hallway, listening as they spoke sternly to him and he yelled things back at them. I imagined that a lot of his anger must come from him being alone and him missing an eye, so I didn’t get scared when his gravely voice fired back at the nurses when they were trying to change him, etc.
Medical issues and yelling usually scare the shit out of me, but I was hoping Willard would help me get past that fear, and I was also hoping I would help him get a friend in there. One day I brought up the idea to Lauren, about entering Willard’s room. She was kind of hesitant at first, just as I was. After all, everyone had told us immediately upon our arrival not to go in there. And I may be a curious girl, but one thing I’m not, is a rule breaker. After a few days of pacing in the hallway in front of Willard’s room, we finally got the courage to peek in and say something. “Good afternoon, WIllard.” He didn’t say anything for a few minutes and then he just grunted. Then the grunting got louder and turned into yelling, and a nurse came around the corner and Lauren and I pretended that we were dusting tables. Just the two of us, suddenly dusting the same spot, on the same table for 3 full minutes, casually giving the nurse “the side eye,” until she left.
The next day, we tried again. This time, no verbal entry, we just walked right in. Willard’s lack of right eye was the side closest to the door. He was quite bony, and from this angle he looked just like a skeleton with skin on it still. We remained standing, in case a nurse came again and we needed to make a quick exit. Long story short, some rules are made to be broken. And some rules…some rules just exist for a specific reason.
Like, the time Lauren and I were told “not to go into Willard’s room” and then we did anyway, and then Willard asked us to take off his pants and not in the “Help me, I’m old” way, but in the “I’m a creepy old man” way. We didn’t take off his pants, but we still waved at him in the cafeteria every day, after our inappropriate exchange. Because he was old. And only had one eye.
Lola was my favorite. She was the happiest, most petite elderly woman I had ever seen. She was adorable in her old age, and absolutely gorgeous in her younger years. I remember thinking that I wanted to look like Lola in my twenties, she was so classy. Her man friend who eventually became her husband, was equally gorgeous. I remember thinking that I wanted to meet a guy who looked like Lola’s fella when I was in my twenties. Lola was always quick to offer up stories about him, his days in the army and how they fell in love. The latter part was always my favorite. Lauren and I spent most of our afternoons in Lola’s room, listening to her stories and looking at her pictures. She had the most romantic tales of writing letters to her love when they were apart, and taking care of him when they were together. (Yeah, he was a soldier, she was a nurse, you guys, it was PERFECT!)
Lauren and I would listen to her pour her heart out in an upbeat, cute, Lola way, and then we would come in with our eloquent two-cents. “Lola, your dude was seriously hot! Like, for real! Does he have a grandson?” Stuff like that.
Lola was the best, because she had the most positive, contagious personality. She was almost always smiling, and she was the only one who spoke of her husband, as if they had just been together yesterday, though he had died many years before.
I thought then, that if I had a daughter, I might name her Lola. I like that name. It is short and girly, like Lily, the name of the daughter of the young mom in my first young adult fiction novel that I wrote in high school on a whim, that I kept in a binder which I eventually lost. I could call her Lo for short, which is spunky and cute.
This Lola was so cute that Lauren and I would always sing “Lola! She was a showgirl, with yellow ribbons in her hair and her dress cut up to there!” to her. (I promise I won’t sing my future daughter that song….until she’s in middle school and is mean to me because her hormones are going crazy and she forgets that I’m her best friend ever…THEN I’m going to shout that song out the window when I’m dropping her off at school. Possibly end with an “I love you honey, make good choices, call me if you miss me….LIKE LAST TIME.”) You know, because I love her and I’m gonna be “a cool mom.”
Lola actually taught Lauren and me that song. Her husband used to sing it to her.
(Probably in a cute and completely non-embarrassing way).