On Wednesday afternoons at the long-term care facility where my mother lived, you will find me in the community hall (or according to my mother – the big mall where people sing) volunteering at bingo.
I go with an open mind and an open heart.
Every week I learn something new from my peeps at the residence. (My sister calls them my “peeps” and I like that so I use the term often.) The gifts that they give me are many and I cherish them.
If you want to meet people who are truly authentic…then visit a long-term care facility. Even those who have Alzheimer’s or a dementia-related disease are real and authentic. When you least expect it, the true essence of each of us shines through; the residents are no different.
My peeps inspire me, and teach me to live in the Now. Often they are so thankful and grateful for the smallest of kind gestures that I just want to weep. Whenever I am with them, I find myself laughing and full of joy.
Today at bingo, my beloved friend (who sat at my mother’s dining table and kept an eye on my mother) joined me. She is full of spirit and enthusiasm – she meticulously cares for her attire, hair, and make-up and always looks so wonderful that I sometimes have to re-check what I have on…am I appropriately dressed to visit her? She visits the chapel daily, she confides, as she is deeply spiritual. She didn’t have to tell me that – I guessed it from her loving and positive energy that she emits every time that I visit her. (I want to be just like her when I grow up!) In spite of a difficult past that I uncover in bits and bobs (as my mother would say), and because she is so strong and determined at the age of 92, I so want to hear her story and record it. But she’s skeptical and isn’t ready yet. I accept that because I have learned that she has withstood many terrible events and grief, and I am deeply aware that perhaps I, too, am not ready to hear her story. I trust that when the time is right, we will recognize that moment and she will share her story.
Another one of my peeps at the bingo table has had a full and rich life in the public eye. I know that because I recognize the people in the photos in her room when I pick her up to go to bingo. She is remarkable, in spite of her dementia. She loves music – I would call her a music aficionado – and often rates the music in the community hall. Her face tells the story – she frowns and says oh, no, that isn’t music, or she’ll sway to the music, tap her feet, and smile at me and say, yes! When I am with her, I am reminded that each of us (no matter how old) has a rich and colourful past. We must not underestimate anyone. (And I would like to capture her story, too.)
I love the residents’ honesty! They don’t hold back. They don’t mince words. Many people don’t like that but I suspect it’s because we are all so used to such mediocrity, such blandness, such hypocrisy in conversations…that when a real and honest conversation takes place, well, we are confused. We see that as oh, auntie is having a bad day. In reality, auntie is just telling it how she sees it. And it isn’t always pretty.
When they are so honest, I think they are more authentic than ever. I have learned to read their faces and the emotions that sit there…words not spoken, but humour, love, distaste, disgust…all blatantly evident.
When the residents play bingo (I overstate that), most are not actually active in the game. Instead, volunteers or staff members sit beside them and help. The volunteers/staff point to the called numbers or actually cover the numbers as the numbers are called aloud. At my table, there are only two of us to help the residents – the other person is a staff member who is a student. She is leaving tomorrow as she has graduated from her course and so this will be the last time I see her.
She is a special person. I am in awe of her. First of all, she is young, happy, full of joy and she is not afraid to express those traits with the residents. She leans in and kisses them on their hands; she often hugs them; she laughs loudly all the time. When someone yells bingo! (no one actually yells bingo!…it’s more like a whisper because the residents are often too weak or too shy to yell) she will jump out of her seat and start jumping up and down, often dancing! Oh, I just want her to stay and play bingo with us the rest of her life! Please don’t go, I tell her, which just makes her laugh more.
She has a beautiful singing voice, too. I know this because once a month there is music therapy at the residence and I volunteer. Since I am not a very good singer, I was terrified to sing alone the first time that I volunteered. But here’s the thing about music therapy at a long-term care facility – it’s the music teacher (who is a talented volunteer) and the volunteer who do most of the singing. Usually when I round up the usual suspects for music, we have only two or three residents who will join in the singing as most of the other participants are unable to sing (for various reasons). I have learned that one does not have to actually sing…to enjoy the music. I have witnessed many a toe-tapper whose eyes are closed.
My mother sang beautifully and sang often in our home when we grew up so I am pretty sure (once again) that I am drawn to music therapy for deep, psychological reasons (Ha!) and to get over my fears.
So I sing.
And I love it. (I love the fact that I choose to sing even though I cannot.) Here’s the funny thing: the residents think I have a lovely voice! (Okay, peeps – we are going to get along just fine.)
But I digress. Our student worker (the one who is leaving at the end of this week) once started singing the hymn that we were trying to sing during music therapy. She was in an adjoining resident’s room and just chimed in.
Oh, even the residents in wheelchairs who barely move or show any emotion, woke up. It was like a miracle! I practically burst out crying, with joy. And so did the woman who leads us. We looked at each other with knowing eyes and we (all of us in that small room) were connected – by the joy of listening to the student’s beautiful voice.
Oh, yes, we will miss her. Wherever she is going, lucky them.
At my bingo table the two of us are attempting to keep track of twelve cards or so, with help from a couple of residents who actually do play bingo, but are hard of hearing. Four? No, fourteen. Forty? No, fourteen. You get the picture.
Well, eventually someone whispers bingo! and then the tables all respond…we help the bingo card winner yell it out….BINGO!
When it’s my turn to check the winning card and give back the called numbers, I am always a little nervous – many of my peeps cover more numbers when I am not looking. I think they feel like they are doing something worthwhile – if I cover one number, why not ten other numbers?
So keeping my eyes on all of their cards, pointing to numbers, and ensuring that no one is “cheating/helping” takes a lot of attention on my part.
I always remind myself to just go with the flow of the afternoon.
Once it has been established that the card is good – that is, all the numbers have been correctly called and identified, the caller yells, “That’s a good bingo,” and we all cheer. As if we have really won the lottery.
Inevitably, after we do a victory dance (whether or not we win), the two of us help the residents to the smaller activity room (the room as my mother used to call it “where the whirling dervish lives,” the high-energy activity director) where the whirling dervish, oops, I mean, the activity director has prepared coffee, tea and cookies for the participants.
When we sit at the round table enjoying our coffees, I often think of my younger life as a mother, sitting with other young mothers, talking about our daily lives and keeping one eye on our kids. I’ve come full circle. Life has an unexpected symmetry, I think. Here I am with residents, keeping one eye on them as they sip their hot drinks, and talking about our daily lives. For a few moments, I know that I am in the flow.
And I think to myself... that’s a good bingo!