Thursday, April 25, 2013

Worth A Visit

UntitledMy parents took me to nursing homes when I was a kid. It wasn't a volunteer thing, we had elderly relatives and family friends so when they visited they took me along. I went to hospitals and care facilities in the same way that I went a lot of other places. As early as 10-years-old I got that these places can be uncomfortable and tried to get out of it. If you've met my mother I want you to picture me at 10 telling her that I just didn't want to visit my great grandmother because it was creepy. When you're finished marveling at the fact that I'm still alive you can keep reading.

I probably didn't handle all of these visits well. I was probably a pain in the ass to get to the facilities and continued in that vein throughout our stay. I was surely a horrific conversationalist who required a lot of explanation when I wasn't near. This did not deter my parents from bringing me again. And again.

As a late teen and early 20-year-old I declared myself "no good with senior citizens." When the dance school I worked for was thinking of expanding into the senior fitness realm I played up how awesome my co-worker would be at those classes. She was good with old people, she liked them, she'd do a bang up job. The seniors we met while teaching children in community spaces were occasionally ornery and almost always nosey but also, by and large, pretty happy to see us every week either way. This information was, apparently, lost on me in my self-centered youth and vitality.

Untitled Sometime over the past decade or so I've realized that it's not about being good with senior citizens or the developmentally disabled or the mentally ill or anyone else. It turns out that I learned a long time ago that it's about being present, respectful, and lending an ear. Occasionally it's about selective listening and seeing but mostly it's the respect and the ear thing. I knew this at 10, I knew this at 20, and I know this now at 44. It's just that in the last 15 years or so I've actually understood what I'm doing and quit complaining about it.

Don't tell anyone, I almost like going to visit care facilities now. I mean, I'm not comfortable enough to make it my full time job or anything but a regular stroll down the washable wool halls works for me. I've performed in nursing homes and prisons. I've taken day trips to visit hospital beds. I've sat up all night in torturous institutional chairs. I've eaten meals in care facilities and so has my dog.

Almost three years ago when I got the call that Moody was dying I went to the hospital. The friend who kept me apprised of the situation wasn't going to visit. He said it brought up too many memories. It wasn't going to bring up memories of wine and roses for me either but not to go wasn't even a question for me. I hopped a bus across town, asked at several hospital buildings, and finally found the ICU. Honestly, it was probably the most disturbing hospital visit I've ever made. There was no question that Michael was dying, he was in the center of a very open ICU where everyone was in terrible shape, the one relative that was there didn't know me from Adam, and Moody was covered in tape and tubes and gadgets to the point where I almost couldn't see his face and what I could see didn't resemble him. In a life that had lost great heaps of dignity this was a low point. Though in some ways it gave me peace about his leaving because I knew he wouldn't want any of that bullshit to continue. His sister was incredibly kind and, after a little polite chit chat (and, yes, we live in a society where that's required even at the bedside of the dying, this is why I hate society), she took a break so I could sit with Michael alone.

Untitled Of course I cried and of course it hurt and of course it brought up a metric tonne of intensely awful memories. On the other hand, I got to see his face and I honestly believe he heard some of what I was saying and we said goodbye after our fashion. I wouldn't trade that visit for anything. I can't understand anyone who wouldn't have chosen to make the trip even though, intellectually, I know there are plenty of valid reasons.

I've had the opportunity to visit someone else in the hospital recently. Sometimes it was a pain in the ass and sometimes it was weird but, again, I wouldn't have done anything differently. I used my skills and I had some really good times and, as we were hoping, nobody died. So I thought now would be a good time to push a certain hope I have out into the world.

I hope you visit your people in nursing homes and hospitals and rehab centers and prison. I hope you can see your way to the good in your visit even when things get uncomfortable. I hope that you understand how important those visits can be for you as well as for the person you're visiting. I hope you learn that, almost at any price, these visits are worth it.

If you want some company I'll come with you.


The New York City Listen To Your Mother Show is happening on May 12, 2013 at 5pm at Symphony Space. Ticket and venue information can be found here. I hope to see you there! If you aren't close to this show please check this site to see if there is a LTYM show near you.


  1. boy...I wish Dave could read this. His Mom is in a nursing home, and he won't go see her. Wants to remember her the way she was. She's got dementia, and doesn't remember anyone and cries a lot. His sisters all go and his one brother that lives in the area.

  2. Woof, that's an extra special case. I know a lot of people (sometimes the institutionalized themselves) who use the "remember as they were" gambit. I get it...sort of...but I don't think it's something you should follow. I'm surprised to hear it's a Dave thing. I hope he can get himself to see her. Glad she's got some visitors even if he doesn't.

  3. Sooza9:20 PM

    When I was a kid, my mom worked swing shift at a nursing home. When my dad and brother would go to the movies (or to some testosterone-laden event), I would pack up my sleeping bag and PJs and head to hang out with mom. I was a pretty quiet kid, so sometimes the stuff people would say would embarrass me, but overall, I have some great memories of the time I spent there. There was a wonderful woman named Lilian. She must have had a stroke, because she was in a wheelchair and couldn't really use the left side of her body. But she had red hair and would always participate during the elastic band aerobics class. I loved her - she was so nice to me and she always smiled at me, though it was clearly an effort for her.

    My mom's next job was as the school nurse at a school and sheltered workshop for the developmentally disabled. It was harder for me to relate to the students/residents there, and I was getting older so it felt more complicated. But I think both experiences helped me (hopefully) become a more thought-ful person (that is to say, thinking about how my actions make other people feel).

  4. I worked in a nursing home when I was a teen and worked with developmentally disabled adults when I was older. Visits generally mean so much to people that I think it's important we're present for them. After I got off work at the nursing home I would visit with one of the residents and sing her to sleep. We both got a lot out of it and I'm so glad I did it.