By Mary Eileen Finch

She slowly ambles by me every morning on her way to breakfast. She pauses, gingerly leans on her walker, watches me set up for exercise, and says something negative about me.

“Your hair is a disaster. Probably the ugliest I’ve ever seen. Shaving your head would be an improvement.”

Every morning it’s something different.

“Why do you even bother working here? You’re the worst person we’ve ever had. A cat could do a better job than you.”

I try a few different approaches. Smiling. Nodding. Pretending her words are a joke and joking back. Inviting her to activities. Gently explaining that her comments were hurtful. Complimenting her.

Nothing touches her.

The insults keep flying. I attempt to find her a friend, but none of the other residents have a desire to engage with her. Her negativity keeps them at bay.

I am to my breaking point and I don’t want her to see the pain her words bring me. I do not want to turn my back on her either. I decide to do paperwork at my desk when she passes by. I don’t think it will matter to her. One less person for her to gripe at.

But, she changes her route so she can walk past my desk. I keep my head down, concentrate on my screen and type furiously. She slows down, taking tiny steps and groaning loudly. I type faster. And feel guilty. I’m a professional, by golly, am I really going to give up on a resident?

I know it’s not personal. Her whole body is screaming with physical pain that she projects onto others. And I’m an easy target. Her fingers are twisted from arthritis. Her spine was broken during open-heart surgery. Her feet are swollen to almost twice their size. Her knees and hips were replaced a dozen years back. Her hearing and eyesight are failing. All she knows when she wakes up is pain. Every step she takes from her bed to her trek to breakfast is agony. 

I jump out of my chair, walk over to her, and just give her a hug. That’s it. A tiny hug. Then I run back to my desk and avoid eye contact. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t hug back. She wanders off towards breakfast.

The next day I do the exact same thing. Before she can open her mouth and let her painful words loose, I get up from my chair, give her a hug, and sit back down. She proceeds to breakfast.

We did this for months. The hugs got longer. If I was on the phone she waited to receive her hug. She started giggling during the hugs.

And then one day . . . she spoke. I braced myself. My stomach clenched. I worked on breathing deeply. Whatever terrible insult she was about to throw at me, I could take it this time.

Very softly she said, “If you come and get me. I’ll do Jumbo Crosswords.”

I actually jumped and clapped my hands! She giggled. She was so thrilled that she had made my day.

I looked forward to her hug every morning. She started commenting again. But her words were softer, kind.

“Your hair looks nice today. It’s good to take care of yourself.”

And one morning her words brought tears, to both of us.

“I’m glad you work here. I’m usually not hungry anymore. I just come down for the hug.”

I took it hard when she passed away. There is a void now where her hugs used to be. There will be hundreds of other hugs. From hundreds of other residents. And I will enjoy them all. But none will replace hers.

When you have around 150 residents, there are dozens of storylines playing out every day. In between activities, events, and projects there are all these “one-offs” that slide into your life. A few minutes to check in with a resident who has a mental health disorder. Another couple of minutes to console a resident who just lost his son. Another minute to chat with a resident who found out she has two months to live. These minutes do add up and could, in theory, be used to conduct a group activity instead.

My job is to enrich the lives of my residents. A common myth is that those in my position throw parties and play games every day. The reality is – to enrich an elder’s life; you need to be there for all your residents. Especially those that do not, or are unable to, attend what is on your activity calendar.