I used to be afraid of old people. I think this is because of two events that happened to me when I was younger. One such event was my first time attendance to an open casket funeral for an elderly friend of my parents. I had no warning as to what to expect so when I saw this very dead, very old person lying in a casket, it scared the living daylights out of me. I thought for sure that she was going jump up out of her satin box and get me. Thanks for that one Mom and Dad. The other event was even more traumatic. I was in Brownies and my troop leader decided that it would be nice to sing carols at the local nursing home. Everything was going smoothly and I was singing my heart out to all of these sweet, smelly, old people when all of a sudden it was time to go. Somehow I managed to fall behind the gang of girls and suddenly I was attacked by a toothless old man who was wheelchair bound. To me he appeared to not have any eyes, hair, arms or legs but then I realized that if he was holding me he had to have arms. I was only 7 and I was being held by some unknown old man so it is fair game to let my imagination go wild, don't you think? He grabbed me and would not let me go. I was terrified and when I looked around, my lousy troop and my lousy troop leader were no where to be found. Thanks a lot troop 23 and Mrs. Tomlinson. He finally let me go after years and years of captivity and I went on to go to school and get married. What can I say, I was scarred forever by old people, or so I thought.
So now, as I enter The Barclay, I am happy to say that I have a new found love for old people. They are funny, full of life, cantankerous, intelligent and just amazing. Each and every one has a story to tell. They have all lived the most incredible and wonderful lives. The only trouble is, you have to be willing to spend time with them. You also have to be willing to touch them and to get down on their wheelchair level to speak to them. I assure you that once you get out of your comfort zone and behave like a compassionate human being, you will be well awarded. What I find especially interesting is the fact that humans need to be physically touched by other humans. No matter how old. No matter how young. It can be deceiving at first when you encounter a geriatric in a nursing home because they have a way of not making eye contact. I think they are so used to their elderly loneliness that they have forgotten how to do this. I find this especially true for the wheelchair bound. Most of the ones that I encounter are women (actually, women out number men all around in nursing homes) who are able to scoot themselves around by using their feet to take itty, bitty rolling steps. They look like hermit crabs with this large shell on their backs scurrying around to who knows where. The look of determination on their faces is wonderful and because I am easily entertained, I think it's very funny-in a nice way, though. Once they stop to catch a breather, I am able to greet them. This is where the transformation takes place. It's kind of like those ridiculous blow up Christmas decorations that people have on their front lawns. They lie in a heap of some unrecognizable shape and then you plug it in and they come to life before your eyes. Greeting and touching becomes a geriatric's electrical current. It is amazing to see this transformation and I can't help but smile at them. I usually get a huge smile in return and the conversation that follows is always pleasant.
The many characters at Barclay provide endless fodder for our entertainment. One wheelchair bound lady parks herself near the nurses' station close to mealtime so that she can shout in her southern voice, "Here comes da fooow-d!" Then there is a man named Dale. He is not too old but has suffered from a stroke and can only respond by saying, "K K K K K K K..." to everything but he says it in a way that is happy and laughing. He knows exactly what is going on and he knows who you are. Then there is haunting Mary, who never says a word. When we see her coming we give warning because she comes upon you very quietly so this can be unsettling unless you are prepared. Our warning is in Spanish, of course, "Aqui viene la mujer loca!" Mary is completely harmless but if you do not know this, she can really seem creepy. She is in her late 50s early 60s and used to be a professor at the local university. I am told she was brilliant but went crazy. Now she wanders around Barclay with her hand down her pants or up her shirt. She looks very disheveled and her eyes have a half wild half I-want-to-say-something-to-you look. She doesn't give me the creeps anymore and I always greet her and ask her how she is doing. Even though I don't get a response, I know she knows what I am saying to her. I also like the little lady who wears a different baseball cap every day. The one I have seen the most is the blue sequined cap. She is a crack up. Jean is the escape artist. She walks around carrying her handbag and looking more like she has just come for a quick visit with her hair done and her make-up as fresh as a daisy. She is suffering from Alzheimer's but has moments of complete sanity. She loves to try to escape and will do this non-stop. It's gotten so bad that my Dad knows how to reset the alarm on the door. Jean also has an uncanny way of seeking Dad out and asking him to help her with her sanitary pad. This just cracks me up. Dad and I have often commented that a sitcom could be written about the people in nursing homes. Hmmmm..not a bad idea.
There are many more characters at Barclay but it is important to realize, that no matter what, they are still human and they still deserve respect and dignity. These people have led such extraordinary lives. If you have not had the chance to read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, I highly recommend that you do. It will give you a glimpse of life in a nursing home as seen from the eyes of and older gentlemen who lives there. The story goes back and forth between his past and his present life. I listened to it on disc and found the readers to be excellent especially since they used an old reader and a young reader to represent the different time periods. Yes, you will cry but that's the sign of a good book. Enjoy and visit some one in a nursing home. You won't be disappointed.