At first I did not realize what I had signed up for when I responded to a Craigslist ad for a receptionist position at an assisted-living home. During the interview process, I think I was blinded by the amount of money they were going to pay me. Answering phones and getting residents’ drinks would be my main duties. I quickly learned that there was way more to the job than just answering phones. Answering phones was just the beginning: What I did not know was that many of the residents (all more than 50 years older than me) needed more than just someone to run and grab them a drink. They need attention and activity, and someone to hold their hand and just be there for them. As sad and scary as it seems, on one level they require the same amount of attention as babies, but they are also adults who must be encouraged and allowed to make choices.
Many remember that, at one point, they were raising babies and taking care of their families. They speak fondly of making dinner, going to work, and the mundane tasks that we grumble about. They want to be helpful, but sometimes they can no longer do even simple tasks. For example, one resident might love to clean but has a hard time walking without assistance. Letting them help would be dangerous because if they fell, they could break something. A part of them is aware that they cannot walk without assistance, but that does not stop their desire to make sure their room (and home) is tidy. One of my main jobs is watching the residents who are prone to falling—to either get them to sit back down or assist them as they walk. Most of the time, they do not want your help! So I began to refer to myself as an old people wrangler, part-item fetcher, part-fall preventer. Being an old people wrangler means that I get to use my outgoing (and somewhat obnoxious) personality to get residents interested in playing games and singing songs or distract them from trying to go outside when it’s raining. No joke: I burst into song in the middle of the day or corral them into the living room to play trivia. I quickly learned that spontaneity gets more exciting as you age. They appreciate your singing, even if it is horrible. They laugh at your stupid jokes, have sassy remarks for everything, and they love to hear you talk about your life.
However, it is not all fun and games. These people are at the end of their lives, and when they get sick or hurt, it can be scary. I am scared because they are hurt, but I am terrified when I think about how that might be me one day. I think that we all just push those thoughts into the vault that sits in the back of our mind. We are trying so hard to avoid the fact that we will one day be in the same position as our grandparents that we forget that they need our support, protection, and care. We need to be more aware of how our decisions—political and personal—affect the elderly, not only because one day we will (inevitably) be in their position, but more importantly because they are still human beings with intense emotional and physical needs.
During this summer, I have learned that even holding someone’s hand for a couple of minutes can ease their pain in a way that medication cannot. One day, a resident was sitting in the living room, surrounded by other residents, but she kept screaming. I walked over and she reached out and grasped my hand. The minute I wrapped my hands around hers, she stopped and began to smile. I have learned that holding their hands allows them to feel grounded to something. Not every situation is as easy as holding someone’s hand. Working with the elderly is not for the faint of heart, and it is draining; I come home ready to collapse into bed and I only work the front desk. I cannot imagine how the nurses and caregivers feel after an eight-hour shift, or longer. However, the benefits far outweigh the crappy parts. They have lived through so much and they have years of wisdom. If you take five minutes to have a conversation with them, you will learn something you did not know before. I think it is time that we embrace the older generations and appreciate all they have to offer us. My summer as an old people wrangler has taught me several life lessons: It has improved my listening skills, my patience, and my appreciation for all the hard work they put in to make my world a better place.
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