I have a confession to make. Almost all my life, I have felt awkward around the elderly. I don’t quite know how to talk to them, how to engage them in conversation and how to behave naturally around them. It was strange to later date a guy who felt at ease among the elderly. After initially contemplating about whether to be a gastroenterologist, he abandoned that when he did a term at the geriatric ward. He used to relate how well he was able to charm all those grumpy old patients and turn them into cute, smiley patients. Over the years, many of his patients would ask if he were married and whether they could introduce him to their daughter. Hands off, I say!
These few months, I’ve been in contact with more old people than I ever have in my lifetime, and very regularly too. I earlier told you that I put my dad in a nursing home, right? Well, because Bethany Nursing Home is just minutes drive from my home, I try to find time to pop down several times a week to spend time with my dad. I pass food to my dad, read the papers for him, talk to him, bring, let him listen to songs, to audio stories, and bring him the occasional visitor/friend. During the recent school holidays, I also brought my sons there as well and get them to try to engage the other residents, e.g., play chess, play the guitar for them to listen to.
The residents in the nursing home seem generally very lonely. True, some residents have regular family visits, but many have been abandoned by family; some have no surviving family. Some residents receive visitors maybe only once a year, or not at all.
On Christmas Day morning, I popped over and found a Korean Church conducting a Christmas Service there. My dad was one of the residents sitting in at the service. But I also saw that there were some residents who were “left behind” in the wards. You see, the function room cannot seat every resident, so when groups come to entertain them, not all can attend the sessions. I decided then to go the ward and try to entertain the “left behinds”. I took out my guitar (yes, I decided on a whim to bring it along) and asked the nurses to wheel all the remaining residents of that ward and be seated around me. I hastily surfed the net to find chords, and sang Teresa Teng’s 月亮代表我的心. Then I panicked because I couldn’t quite figure out what else to sing. So, I sang that song again. Then, I started to warm up and belted out 一件礼物 and 朋友. I knew I didn’t sound very good. The chords were too high for one song and I kept having to sing one octave lower during the chorus so that I could keep the song going. The residents seemed bored, they seemed to just stare into space. Good thing my family was not with me that morning, otherwise, I’d have felt even more awkward. Hey, I had thought to myself that morning, at least if they weren’t impressed with the singing, it would at least have been comedy for some of them! Hopefully, not tragedy though.
At the end of my singing, a nurse came up to one of the residents and wiped away his tears. I didn’t realise he was weeping. Perhaps a song had touched his heart. Then, another resident gave me an applause and a thumbs up. I saw that he was blind. He told me to come again and sing for him again. As I put away my guitar, this other resident, who I think was partially paralysed, raised one hand, gave me a wave and smiled. I resolved then and there to interact more with the residents.
And I did. Last week, when I was feeding my dad, I happened to look up and made eye contact with a resident. I plucked up my courage, greeted him and asked him in Chinese what his name was. He replied in English and told me his name. Ah, an English name, I thought to myself, that meant that he was likely to be able to speak English. So, I went on. I asked him if he enjoyed reading. Yes, he did. I took a bold step and asked him if he would like me to read for him if I had time. “Yes.” I asked him what he enjoyed reading when he was younger. “Novels,” he replied. What kind of novels? He paused, thought for a while and then he looked at me and declared, “Espionage!” Whoa! I was stunned. So, I went to the library and borrowed a book titled How to catch a Russian spy. The reviews on the internet weren’t very flattering, but I wanted to start with a simple book.
The resident (I’ll call him Mr A), didn’t greet me when I saw him again, but when I told him that I had borrowed a book on spying, and asked him to wheel himself over to me after dinner, he did just that. So, with my dad on one side and Mr A. on the other, I read the Introduction. I tried to read loudly, clearly and slowly. And would you believe it, he chuckled at the right moments! It took me quite long to complete just the Introduction. After I read, I had a chat with Mr A. He spoke very slowly because half his body was paralysed. He told me he had been with the Home for 11 years. I asked if he was bored. He replied that the Home had regular activities such as events, services, games and what not to keep him occupied.
So, with that, I made a new friend.
Dear friends, if you are keen to volunteer at Bethany Nursing Home, click here to access their Volunteer Page If you want to help in a way that is not listed in the website, put it in the remarks, and ask for someone to call you back. You don’t need special skills to volunteer. Even sitting next to a resident and reading the newspapers for him, or translating news from Chinese to dialect verbally, can help stimulate their minds and keep them connected to the outside world.
Give it a thought, will you?