Monday, February 15, 2010

Simple Kindnesses

In Treatment, 2010

The other evening I was over at the rehab facility where my mother is recovering from a broken ankle. I arrived just as dinner was being served. The food at this place isn’t bad. But let’s just say it’s not such that you’d want to delay your recovery just for the cuisine.

My mother hadn’t been eating lately. Complications in her condition that had sapped her appetite were finally getting better and she was back to eating again.

I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in or visiting a rehab/nursing facility. No matter how bright and colorful, they’re still not very cheery places. I can’t imagine that any of the patients and residents chose to be there. The long-term residents are there because they’re not able to live alone safely elsewhere. The rehab patients are a revolving group of similarly older folks recovering from surgery, strokes, heart attacks and broken bones. Most of them walk out after a few months of physical therapy.

Places like this—this particular facility cares for about two hundred rehab patients and residents—get by with a handful of doctors, nurses and physical therapists and a whole lot of semi-skilled aides who don’t get paid much. It’s probably not a place you’d work as an aide if you had other choices. Some of the patients can be difficult. The routine upkeep of so many older incapacitated people isn’t always pretty.

Every now and then, though, you see little glimpses of kindness that reaffirm your faith in mankind. It might be an aide gently directing a confused resident back to his or her room or cleaning up after a bathroom accident, or a nurse calmly explaining to an agitated rehab patient why she can’t go home yet.

My mother’s dinner had just been brought in. Some of the dining room workers who bring meals around just drop their trays on patients’ bedside tables and quickly move on down the hall. But Corinne isn’t one of them. My guess is that she’s at the bottom of the salary pyramid at this place. Yet she brings dignity to everything she does. She took the lid off the plate of baked chicken and starting separating the meat off the bone so that it would be easier for my mother to eat. When I thanked her, she explained:

“I don’t like my people having to deal with bones. Too many chances for something to get stuck in a throat. Some of them can’t even handle the skin, so I pull that off for them, too.”

For those of us who don’t think twice about the potential dangers of the food we eat, this little moment might have seemed inconsequential. But I’ve learned that there’s not just a loss of independence that comes when you get old and sick, but an even more debilitating loss of dignity. I’ve commented here about my mother’s habit of joking about her “reduced standards.” It’s her way of trying to laugh off her circumstances. But I know it’s also a cover for the loss of pride.

It took Corinne less than a minute to make my mother’s dinner a little easier for her to digest. But making it possible for my mother to eat her dinner without having to ask for help gave her confidence and peace of mind that lasted the whole night.

1 comment:

  1. Corinne sounds like a really kind soul. You're so right--it broke my heart to watch my mom lose her ability to do things as she aged, and for someone who's been independent and active for a lifetime, that loss of dignity is the hardest thing. The tiniest acts can mean so much to someone in such a situation.