Everybody has their story as to how they ended up in activities. Here is mine.
I answered an ad to be a “Friendly Visitor” when I was a senior in high school. I saw the ad in the high school guidance office and the guidance counselor suggested volunteering in a nursing home would “look good” on my college applications. It was 1973 and the Viet Nam war had just ended and Richard Nixon was dealing with Watergate. Like many other 17 year olds at that time, I was trying to figure out where I belonged. I thought I would give the nursing home a try. I was accepted into the “friendly visitor” program and was assigned an elderly lady named Miss Carrie. She was blind and I could always find her sitting at the end of the hall, outside her door, in the sun of the window. She told me she loved the warmth of the sun because she was always cold. I visited faithfully every week. Miss Carrie did not say much, even when I prodded her with questions. She seemed more interested in my life as a high school senior. We talked about everything – boys, marriage, going to college and even sex. She provided some interesting insight and honest advice which to this day, I still remember.
On my way to see Miss Carrie every day, I would pass through the lobby. In the lobby sat two male residents. They were younger residents, in their twenties. As you would suspect, the two gentlemen sat up a bit straighter when I would dash through the lobby. I would send a quick wave and head down to Miss Carrie’s room. One day, as I was heading down Miss Carrie’s hallway – one of the gentlemen shouted out “What’s New?” I paused and walked over to them. Not sure what to say, I responded “New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire”. It broke the ice; we all laughed and introduced ourselves. Jimmy had cerebral palsy and Henry had hydrocephalus. Both were confined to wheelchairs and verbally hard to understand but they were typical young men in spirit. Now, with every visit, I stopped in the lobby after one of them would shout out as I arrived “what’s new?” I always had a new response of towns/place that began with “New”. I would look up locations in the atlas in the high school library before my visit to the nursing home, looking for towns with the start of “New” in their names.
One day I arrived to the nursing home and the Social Director called me into her office as I was chatting with the boys, as I had started to call them. My first thought was I was in trouble for spending too much time with residents who were not my “assigned” visits. As I sat down in her office, she quickly said she needed to re-assign me a new person as Miss Carrie had passed away. She asked me if I had any suggestions for who I would like to visit. I sat there in stunned silence as I was trying to process the quick, matter of fact way that the Social Director had informed me that lovely Miss Carrie had died. My eyes were welling up and the Social Director looked at me and said “What did you expect to happen? Everyone here is old and they don’t live very long – it’s to be expected.” I remember saying – “not everyone is old – what about Jimmy and Henry?” The social director thought for a moment and said “why don’t you visit with them, they seem to have taken a liking to you.”
I continued to visit the remainder of my senior year of high school. Visiting “the boys” was a bit different than visiting with Miss Carrie, but fun all the same. We always started our visits with the “what’s new” greeting and I never let the boys down as I would come up with new places every week. One of the favorite things to do when I visited would be to take them for a walk around the building. I think part of it was they didn’t get outside much and another part was I could only take one of them at a time. We didn’t talk much about my leaving for college. I was doing something that neither of them had the opportunity to do nor would ever be able to do, considering the times.
But the time came and I did leave. I wrote to them a few times but never got a response. They did not have the ability to write and the Social Director was not one to help them. I did visit at Thanksgiving but it felt awkward as if they were angry with me for leaving them and living my life. Soon after, my Dad passed away and my life was turned upside down and I didn’t think of Jimmy or Henry very often. I finally graduated with a degree in Art and was home looking for a job. The first job I saw was for an Activity Assistant in that same nursing home. I immediately thought of Jimmy and Henry, wondering if they were still there. How could they be – it had been four years.
I arrived for the interview and couldn’t stop thinking of Jimmy and Henry – would they be sitting in their spot in the lobby. As I walked up the driveway, I could see two shadows in the same spot of the lobby where they sat. Sure enough, there they were – sitting as when I left them four years earlier. I stood in the entrance of the lobby, looking over at them. They looked at me and I wondered if they remembered me. Henry shouted out “What’s new?” I walked over and said “New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire”. Jimmy shook his head and said “four years of college and that is the best you got”. We all laughed and I knew I had found my way back home.
I got the job as an assistant and within a year, the director left and I was promoted to director. To Jimmy and Henry, I was always that seventeen year old girl and they teased me relentlessly when I was promoted. They kept me grounded and focused on what was important. Sadly, Henry passed away at the age of 29 due to complications from an infection. I know we are supposed to remain professional and not develop personal relationships with our residents. Occasionally one must make an exception. Jimmy and I were friends. I brought him to my house for Thanksgiving dinner, he met my family, he attended my wedding and we continued those walks around the building as often as I could (at least 2-3 times a week). Jimmy and Henry taught me some important life lessons. They taught me to be grateful for what opportunities I had and to not complain as it could always be worse. They taught me to appreciate the little things in life, like taking a walk outside and enjoying whatever weather might be upon us that day.
I resigned as director after I had my son. At the same time, Jimmy was leaving to go to a group home. The social worker had found him a less restrictive setting with other younger adults. This time when we both left, it was for a new path in life. This time when I wrote to Jimmy, he would write back. It would only be a line or two but someone at his home helped in the process. We kept in touch till Jimmy passed away in his 50’s. To this day, when I hear the greeting “what’s new?” – I smile and think of “the boys’.