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Activities: from a chaplain's notebook.

Autumn for the Aged

Had you ever thought how depressing autumn could be to the residents of a nursing home? The daylight hours grow shorter and shorter. Often the days are cloudy and gloomy. The chill in the weather keeps those who have enjoyed the outdoors in the summer from venturing forth. Even inside, chilling drafts sweep across the floor, making sitting inside uncomfortable. Leaves dry and drop. Flowers wither and die. The whole world seems to be winding down.

There may be subliminal or psychological reasons for the elderly being affected by the coming of autumn. In our culture we have so often used Fall as a metaphor of aging. We speak of June-and-December marriages. The autumn of life is so often used to describe aging and approaching death. The harvest years or the golden years (reference to leaves turning gold) are common euphemisms for aging. Little wonder, then, that after years of conditioning the older person's mind picks up the environmental clues and applies them personally, though not necessarily consciously. Life is slowing down. Death and decay come on apace.

Is there a way this negative thinking can be reversed? How about this? One day in October I carried an armload of small tree limbs into the recreation area where I had twelve or so old men who were my charges. They were branches from hard maples, oak and sycamore trees all brilliant with fall colors. Each man received two or three branches of varying colors. They were so excited. They held them up to the light so they could seem them better. One old fellow lifted his paralyzed hand with his strong hand and placed the useless hand on top of the leaves. Then he stroked the leaves with his good hand smiling as best he could with half his face.

When the excitement died down a little I mentioned to them that many good things happen in the fall. Then I asked: "What good things do you remember about the fall of the year from the time you were boys?"

Then came the rush of stories. One man told of shucking corn on frosty mornings. Another said he always looked forward to fall because it was easier to hunt squirrels when the leaves were off the trees. "In fact," he said, "I can still taste that good squirrel pie just thinking about it." Another told of helping his father make apple cider while his mother made apple butter in a big iron kettle in the yard. Several mentioned gathering walnuts. One man told of watching the field mice gather and store hazel nuts and how easy it was to rob the mice. "Mice," he said, "never stored a bad nut. Sometimes we could get a half-bushel in one place." And so it went. An hour and a half later I left; the men were still talking and playing with the leaves.

The Administrator of the home said that for a week or ten days she had never heard so many homey stories about the fall. "This is the only time in my experience as an Administrator," she said, "that my residents are glad it is autumn." Of course. They were spending all their time thinking about the good things in the past. There was no time left to be depressed.

Sing-Along

Twice a month some friends meet in the recreation room of the nursing home for a sing-along with the residents. We are not necessarily good singers but we are concerned and we are happy in doing this.

The program gets its name from the practice of singing old songs that the residents have known since they were children. Some are popular ditties, -- Home on the Range, Shine on Harvest Moon, Clementine. Others are old Gospel songs, -- Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross, In the Garden. Each person present is urged to sing along with the ten- to twelve-voice chorus. And, they do, with great gusto.

There is Becky in her wheelchair. She enjoys this so much her son takes off work an hour early just to bring her and be with her. She hardly knows her name any more but when we sing she joins in mightily, scarcely missing a word. Sometimes she gets carried away and directs the music the way she did the church choir years and years ago.

Nellie always insists that she sit in the front row. She demands to have a song book, too. When a song is announced she opens her book at random and sings lustily. Half the time her book is upside down. She always leaves with a contented smile.

Blind Bob, age ninety-seven, sits in his wheelchair, too. He is a former teacher of music; he has been blind for ten years. He does not often speak to people for he does not see them, but my, how he can sing. His daughter says that singing is his one bright ray of sunshine in his now darkened world.

Elmer has joined us recently. He has Alzheimer's disease. He is not sure of anything - where he is, who he is, or even what his name is. Elmer does not sing; he whistles. Strangely enough, he seems to know every song we have sung in the six months he has been with us. Those who know music better than I comment that he always seems to whistle on key and in tune with the piano. It was a little disconcerting at first, but now we all appreciate Elmer and his whistling.

There are others who come to sing along whose stories are just as interesting as these four. These examples, however, are sufficient to let us see what is happening. The sing-along briefly opens a window onto the pleasant past, doesn't it?

We usually close with the old song, "God Be With You Til We Meet Again." As the members of the chorus sing this we walk among the residents shaking hands, patting shoulders, and even being kissed sometimes. Each one of us leaves with the sense that something good has happened. It really has, too!

An Easter Memory

I was chaplain to a dozen or so old men in one wing of a nursing home. Every two weeks I had a program of some sort for them. We chose Tuesday at 10:00 o'clock because none of the men cared to watch TV at that hour. I took some simple prop to catch and maintain their attention. Usually this item was something that would trigger a memory of the past, something that I could leave with them.

It was just before Easter. What would be appropriate? An egg? A rabbit? A cross? I chose a small picture card, billfold size, in full color. They were cheaper by the dozen so I had bought two dozen of them. The plan was to give one to each man.

As the session began I asked how many of them had gone to Sunday School when they were boys. Every one had. Then I asked how many of them remembered that in many Sunday Schools sixty years ago children were given a card each Sunday with a picture, a story and a little verse on it. One man promptly said: "My favorite was Noah's Ark." Not to be outdone, another said: "Mine was David and Goliath." Others chimed in too.

Then I told them I had a card for each one of them that very day that was almost like the ones they remembered. I gave each one the card with Sallman's "Head of Christ." We talked for an hour or so about Easter and Holy Week. I left, feeling well pleased at how the morning had gone.

That evening about 9:00 o'clock the administrator of the home called to ask if I happened to have any more pictures like I have given the men. I told her that I had several. Then she said: "Thank God! Will you bring one over right now?" It seemed like an old request at that hour.

She met me at the door. She explained: "When the men got ready to go to bed two hours ago each man put his picture on his nightstand propped up so he could see it -- all but Emil, that is. He could not find his. He has been hunting for it and refuses to turn off his light and go to sleep until he finds it." She took the picture I gave her and said, "I will go now and help him hunt and we will find his picture, won't we?"

I had hardly gotten home when the phone rang. It was the administrator to tell me: "Guess what? We found Emil's picture behind his bed. He leaned it against his glass of water under the night light where he could see it. He is already sound asleep."

Who says the aged patient cannot, will not, does not listen?

Lloyd A. Taylor is a retired nursing home chaplain now residing in Edmond, Oklahoma.
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Author:Taylor, Lloyd A.
Publication:Nursing Homes
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:1506
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