Posted 07-25-2003 at 08:13:52
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Clod you must have been reading my mind. I was just thinking about this last night.
When I was very young I went to work for a nursing home. I had no special training. I took the job because I was young and strong and there was no other work available within walking distance and I had no car. I had no idea what I was getting into.
There was a patient, Mary Ford. I'll never forget her. She was a tiny wispy little woman who spent her days curled in a ball on her bed, her elbows to her chest, her fists balled up under her chin, her knees pulled up to her stomach. She had no family, and no visitors that I had ever seen.
If you touched her, she would react like a turtle and tuck herself up even more tightly and scream her head off. If you persisted, she would beat you half to death, until she realized that you were not going to give up, and then she would go limp as a rag doll.
Naturally she was one of my patients. For several weeks I endured beatings from this woman. I used to cringe when I went to work, knowing that I had to bathe her and feed her and dress her.
I spent a lot of time thinking about her, even on my off hours. Communication with her was impossible. There seemed to be no way to convince her that I was there to help her.
Then one day I had a revelation. I woke up one morning and as I lay there thinking about the day before me, I suddenly got a vision of a little girl lying on a flthy cot in the dark, half starved, crying for her mother. In a concentration camp. I saw that same, strained, fetal postition that I had seen in Mary on a daily basis.
I don't know why, but I was convinced that Mary had been a prisoner in Auschwitz. They say that the very old have a second childhood, that the earliest memories in their lives beome very real once again and they relive them.
I couldn't wait to get to work.
When I got there I burst through the double doors and went straight to Mary's room. As I approached her bed, she started wailing and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. I took a deep shaky breath and I moved to the side of her bed and before I could chicken out, I leaned down and put my arms around her very gently and held her. Then I kissed her on the cheek, and then the the forehead. She stopped struggling and froze, her body stretched tight as a piano wire.
I was encouraged. My theory about her childhood was that she needed that comforting presence that a mother would provide in a terrifying environment. I searched for the words a mother might say to placate a frightened child.
"You're safe now. You're all right. No one will hurt you ever again. I won't let them."
I felt her body start to relax and for the first time in my experience with her, she sought and found my eyes with hers. Both her eyes and mine were full of tears.
Then very slowly her arms began to open and like fragile little wings she wrapped them around me and hugged me back.
I will never know if my hunch was right, but I do know this. I only had to say a few words to her and stroke her shoulder or her cheek from that day forward and she never gave me another second's trouble.
As the young tend to do I moved away abruptly and gave up my job at the nursing home but not before sharing this technique with everyone on Mary's wing. I know they used it, it was a lot easier than getting beaten up. Smile.
What I took away from Mary was this. Working with the elderly is difficult because you invade their space, you must put your hands on them, you see them at their most embarrasssing and vulnerable. It is ridiculous to assume that they need to be washed and turned and massaged and basically violated, but that they do not also crave the type of touch that soothes the soul. The hug, the kiss, the stroke on the cheek, the kind words.
It's a free gift with an unlimited and renewable supply. Mary taught me that. That's why I'll never forget her.