At first glance, I don’t look like I belong in a nursing home. I often get confused for ex-military (or current, for that matter) or law enforcement. I have a buzz cut and broad shoulders. I have a confident stride and firm handshake. But I gotta tell ya, I love little old ladies.
My love affair with LOLs (little old ladies)
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I went to physical therapy school in 1996 at the ripe old age of 18. I thought I had the world figured out. The quote beneath my senior picture in the yearbook says, “Life is a game that I plan on winning.” Ah, the hubris of the young.
Anyway, the plan was to become a physical therapist, work in a nice tidy orthopedic clinic and work with young, otherwise-healthy, athletes. I would make them better. I would make them stronger and faster and able to jump higher. I would make buckets of money doing this, too, by the way.
Things started according to plan. In my fourth year of college, we began our Clinical Rotations – where we set out to learn from PTs in the “real world” for eight week blocks of time. I went to Phoenix, AZ, where I learned from a guy with a nice, tidy orthopedic clinic. He worked with young, otherwise-healthy, clients. He had lots of ‘stuff’ at home: a big fancy truck, some horses, nice house, wife and kids. I deduced that he was clearly making buckets of money. I had found my mentor.
I can remember the very moment my life’s path changed. My second rotation was at a SNF (skilled nursing facility) in Portland, ME. I was working primarily with the elderly. This one particular lady had had a stroke a week or so before. It was the winter of 2000 and we were gearing up for a presidential election. I asked her if she had planned an absentee ballot, where it was obvious she wouldn’t be going to the polls in person. She said something like, “Honey, I wasn’t planning on being here.”
I was stunned. I had never thought of it that way. A subtle mind-shift had begun. I spent the next two months working with people whose lives had changed in the blink of an eye, and they were trying to figure out who they still were, and who they were going to become. I saw people at their best, and at their worst; and I liked it.
My last rotation was a mix of inpatients (what we call people in hospitals or nursing homes), and outpatients (people who come and go from their appointments). I was planning a wedding (or Beth was, to be honest). I was dealing daily with people who’d been married 50 or 60 years. I began asking for advice on how to achieve the same milestones. My favorite piece of advice was, “Don’t get divorced!” My appreciation for this generation was growing. I met people who remembered the great stock market crash of 1929, who remembered the first TV on their block, who had fought in world wars. One lovely woman told me that one of her favorite memories was sitting at her mother’s feet, learning how to knit scarves for the boys who were serving in WWI.
I have been a professional PT for 12+ years now, and my love for the elderly grows daily. I have spent the majority of my career working in nursing homes. I work at a hospital now, in rural Maine, where 80 is young. I still moonlight on the weekends at some of the nicest SNFs in the area. One day, years ago, my wife followed me to a nursing home where I had to see a few people before spending the rest of the day “out” with her in Bangor. She sat quietly in the rehab gym working on her crossword puzzle without really saying much, but I got the best compliment when we got to the car 2 hours later. Beth said, “They’re all so old, and wrinkly. When you talk about your residents they always seem so beautiful, happy, and energetic; and I imagine them as heads of industry, heads of their families, soldiers, and people of importance. You see them that way, don’t you?” I didn’t realize until then that not everyone does.
When I was honored with the title Employee of the Year at Millinocket Regional Hospital (where they call me the Gray Hair Whisperer), I had to ride in a float in the Fourth of July parade as part of the hoopla. I told the kids they could ride with me. It wasn’t allowed per hospital liability protocol, and I decided that if they were walking -I was walking. As we trailed behind the truck with the empty chair in it with my name on the banner, I could see many people in town who were confused. It seemed those under 50 had no idea who I was. But all the LOLs were shouting my name and waving furiously. These were my people. They knew who I was.
Beth gives me mock grief to this day when we attend a town function or go grocery shopping. I have to stop and hug and kiss all these women before I can attend to the task at hand. It’s my favorite part of small town living. Knowing and being known by those around you. And once you’ve helped someone through their stroke, or get over their hip replacement or pelvis fracture, you’ve created some kind of bond.
Now it’s not to say that I have no love for that sixteen year old kid who sprained his ankle stealing third base, but give me an 85 year old LOL who’s been married 60 years, raised a family, and really lived life. That’s where the knowledge is; and that’s where I belong.
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