Sunday, March 7, 2010

Young Nursing Home Residents: Person-Centered Culture Change Must Include Them

As quiet as it’s kept, young residents are often found in nursing homes. They are a growing population that many overlook when they think of nursing homes as “old people’s homes.” In many ways, traditional nursing homes are not designed with needs of young residents in mind.

The first young resident I came to know while I was hospice volunteering was a young woman named Velma. She appeared to be in her early twenties. She was often stationed in her wheelchair in the hall near the elevator. She was not my patient, but, as a volunteer in nursing homes, I came in contact with many people. Velma was mentally impaired and did not speak in sentences. But she was quite good at waving and laughing loudly when I showed her attention on the way to my patient’s room. We had a little game where, pretending not to notice her when I was leaving, I would get on the elevator and then peep back at her and wave before the doors closed. She thought this was hilarious, and she watched me closely whenever I headed in that direction.

Another young resident was one of several roommates who shared a room with my patient. Many of my hospice patients had multiple roommates. Imagine dying while living on a daily basis in a room with three other people with various illnesses, including dementia. Warren, who seemed to be in his early thirties, roamed freely around the nursing home. While he also did not speak in sentences, his grunting sounds were perfect. He had a habit of running up behind me in the hall, covering my eyes with his hands, and grunting loudly, “Who? Who?” Of course, nobody else I knew did that to me, including elementary and middle school students at my school where I was principal. I always guessed he was the “mystery” person. Then we would both fall out laughing as if each time were the first. Thinking about this ongoing scenario still makes me have a rainbow smile.

But there was a sadness about these young people and some others I have seen in nursing homes. These residents, particularly those severely challenged, didn’t appear to have much scheduled to enrich them creatively other than watching television and observing what was going on around them. Sure, there were overlapping activities in which all ages could participate. But ages twenty through one hundred have unique requirements. Young people often craved attention and clearly needed more engaging activities focused on their age groups. Their needs must be addressed if nursing homes are to become person-centered in providing quality of life for all residents.

Frances Shani Parker, Author

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