One of my former clients died recently, which prompted me to think about kindness. During my working years, I did a fair amount of nursing home consultation. Often the consultations were focused on residents who were having difficulty adjusting to the regimentation that comes with institutional living. I believe that no one really wants to end up in a nursing home, but there are times when circumstances dictate that as the safest and best alternative. Residents that I met with had a variety of problems, but the common denominator was a feeling of loss of control over their environment. They often complained about the food, about not getting prompt attention from the staff, about having to follow a schedule that they had no say in, about roommates (roommates in nursing homes will be a topic for another post), and about feeling disliked by staff or other residents. In response, depending on the person's personality, they might respond to the situation by becoming angry, anxious or depressed. In turn, these negative emotions tended to cause the staff to avoid the resident, reinforcing the person's feelings of isolation, and becoming a vicious cycle.
The gentleman who died recently had led a truly good life, dedicating himself to making the world a better place. He had a long marriage to a woman that he placed on a pedestal, believing her to be a much better person than he. Rather than having that lower his self-esteem, he used those feelings to motivate him to strive to improve himself. When I met him, his wife had already died, and he was in his mid-nineties. They had four children, and he was extremely proud of all of them, and while they lived thousands of miles away, they alternated monthly visits to him. He lived in a skilled nursing home, where he had turned his room into a comfortable replica of the home he had shared with his wife. There were family pictures everywhere, and his familiar books surrounded him. While his body was failing him, his mind remained sharp.
What I immediately noticed was that every member of the staff treated him with love and respect. They went out of their way to be sure that he had every comfort, and even spent some of their personal time visiting with him. They had asked me to see him because they wanted him to be able to talk to someone about his losses. While the loss of his wife and his physical abilities weighed on him, he was not depressed. Rather, he wanted to review his life and be sure that everything would be in order for his children when his time came. We met off and on for a few years, and he told me wonderful stories about his life. He was never the hero in the stories, but he was often the agent for change. During this time, I never heard a negative word from him about anyone. When a staff member came into his room to provide care, he unfailingly thanked them sincerely for their help. He got to know them personally, and asked about their families. In short, he developed real relationships with them. As a result, they saw him as a wise elder, whom they could turn to for advice.
The lesson I learned from him was to recognize each person in your life as valuable, to treat each person with respect, and to be as kind to others as you would wish them to be to you. While I haven't seen him since I retired, I have heard that at the end he was surrounded by family and staff who he treated like family, and that his end was peaceful, as he wanted it.