We have all been asked our age. From the time we are just learning to speak well into adulthood, we are asked “How old are you?” Whether we hold up our fingers, answer loudly, answer reluctantly or simply don’t answer depend on that number– the number of our age.
According to www.m-w.com an adjective (n.) is “a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages and typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else”. According to this definition, I could venture to say that our age is our very own adjective, with the entirety of our person being the noun. I guess it doesn’t entirely “indicate our quantity or extent” but it gives an onlooker a solid idea of what our personality could entail. A six year old is, of course, going to do just about everything differently than a 50 year old. The natural diversities that occur with age contrasts exist on a linear continuum, with the greatest unlikenesses being directly related to age difference. This bemuses me.
Of course, this is all common knowledge and trivial. However, I think after a certain age (and who knows what the numeric value of that age is?) that number, that sliver of our identity becomes slightly more meaningful than a lesser number.* I find beauty in the depths of knowledge of my geriatric clientele and all of this appreciation washed over me today at work.
I am a nurse. I care for people. I am a “people person”; I enjoy talking with most anyone and delight in human interaction. I would fail miserably at a desk job due to sheer lack of human interaction, or a much reduced amount from what I’m accustomed to now. I gave numerous pats on the back, one hug and received one kiss (on the cheek) at work today; and that was just today! I enjoy the interaction I have with my residents (“patients”). It’s kind of like an instant-reward-positive-reinforcement thing. These are the moments that I recall vividly when answering “Do you like your job?” I love my job for many reasons. But nursing isn’t something I do, it’s who I am. I am a nurse.
Whilst nursing people today, I was engaged in conversation with a retired lawyer. He has advanced dementia and still believes he is practicing. I’m sure the sight of him lugging around various binders full of crossword puzzles can be a comical one but once he gets your attention, he makes it clear what he thinks of your lawyer-ing skills and he then fills you in on the “case”. I took the time today to play along and caught myself being both amazed and delighted.
“Playing along” was like watching a black-and-white film reel without sound. It was like I was transported into his life, watching glimmers and flashes of his adulthood, his law firm, his interactions with others, his sense of self. It was like I was the only person invited to attend the showing and I loved it. He complimented me, saying “Well, you’ve been a good worker for years and I think you can get the job done.” Receiving compliments about the way I nurse or the quality of my nursing means the world to me; and to hear a semblance of that from a person with advanced dementia just tickled me pink. Plus, it was fun to go along with being a lawyer, if only for a 10 minute daydream.
This is not the first time I have cherished the age gap between myself and the people I take care of. I often think to myself that geriatric nursing is kind of the jackpot of nursing specialties. Think about it: you’ve got 30 (or so) adoptive grandmas and grandpas, elderly people give great hugs and they can be terrific conversation. Old people have seen a lot. They’ve lived through the World Wars, Civil Rights movements, the age of computers and have also seen America’s first “black” President. These people, my residents, are like diaries waiting to be opened– many of them would love to have a 15 minute chat with a young person, but few young people take the time.
I worked as a certified nursing assistant for four years before I became a nurse. In the early days of my certification, I would find myself wondering what the hell to say to the residents. …Because there is a lot of time for talking when you’re taking someone to the bathroom or giving them a shower. I figured it out quickly and started asking questions, engaging myself in the actual care for my residents. “Don’t get too attached” was something I have heard innumerable time as a warning– as if I didn’t know that my patients were close to death. Seriously? I know. That’s why it’s called long term care. That last word? Oh, uh, I guess I took it more seriously than you.
“Don’t get too close.” Why? Because they’re not worth it? Because shielding my feelings is more important than connecting with a person? I do understand the intentions of these warnings. I’m a “feeler”. I cannot easily mask how I feel about something and I am not afraid to feel. This includes grief and being sad. I do mourn my residents’ deaths. I have attended a handful of funerals and shed many tears. But when I hear “You’re a great nurse, Bre” or “You’re so nice” from one of my residents it completely answers the question ‘Is it worth it to be so attached?’ Yes.
I feel that same deep sense of attachment when I think of my niece, DeAnnaLynn, or Dede. She is so precious to me and I adore her. I would do anything for that little girl. And yet our age difference will lay the outline for our relationship and Aunt and Niece. I am old enough to be her mother so naturally I will be maternal toward her. But I hope that I’m not unreachable to her; I hope that she will still like talking to me when she’s older. I actually hope that she and I behave like myself and my favorite aunt, my Aunt Shelly. I really really hope that I am her favorite aunt. But flip the picture– what if I were younger than my niece’s mother? That could easily influence a more sibling-like relationship, which is what my brother’s relationship with Dede resembles. It all boils down to the previously mentioned continuum: the greater the difference in age, the greater the difference in behavior.
I love people, young and old. And I leave you with one request: Will you make time for an elderly person in your life? Call your grandma or grandpa or Great-Aunt Millie. Remember that old people are still people.
*I am not, in any way, saying that because a person is “older” their life has more significance than that of a “younger” person. Each and every life is important and has potential.