A patient named Nat had a wheelchair-riding contest with himself every time we returned to his room from outdoors. He briefly pushed his wheelchair fast to beat the door buzzer that went off when we entered from the porch. This was a race he always won. He never tired of playing this game or bragging about how fast he was every time he won, as if he had hit a home run. People sitting in the lobby began to expect that when we entered, there would be a lot of hoopla over Nat’s beating the buzzer. Laughing with triumph, he enjoyed celebrating his victory and telling everybody I was his wife. This came from a white man who initially expressed reluctance about being assigned a black volunteer.
One day outside in the parking lot, I was taken aback when a patient named Gail explained, “I lived here in this nursing home on the fifth floor for years. Look up there. That open window on the corner is where my room was. I used to look out that window and see my car. I’d walk around on all the other floors and talk to people. Everybody here knows me, except the new people.” It never occurred to me that she had been in the nursing home so many years. I thought she had come after she was diagnosed as a hospice patient. I had wondered why she was so well known on every floor. A nurse confirmed her story later. Even as her memory faded, Gail still had a living history there that tapped her on the shoulder, whispered in her ears to remind her of who she had been and what she had done as a more independent woman.
Sharing time with patients on wheelchair rides, I sometimes felt like I was watching them perform a dance of seven veils as they gradually revealed new layers of interest about themselves. And because volunteering is such a win-win experience, I also learned a lot about myself. In every way, we were dance partners.
Frances Shani Parker, Author
"Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes”
“Hospice and Nursing Homes Blog”