It's possible that all of the talk and all of the support about this visit backfired, making me even more worried about the possible worst-case scenarios of these visits, but I was definitely downright terrified by the time I got to the home today. Through some combination of a newfound self-confidence and an unwillingness to miss a required part of my program, I didn't hesitate, but I sure wanted to.
During the first 20 minutes, I just got the lay of the land. I walked up and down my assigned floors. Twice. I talked to people in my program on my floors who had done a quick visit right away, and asked how it went. I chatted with one of our faculty advisers yet again. I convinced someone else to visit a resident with me. And, finally, I nervously knocked on a door.
15 seconds later, somehow, all the nervousness was gone. M and I were chatting with an elderly gentleman who could have easily been a friend of my grandfather's or something. He grew up and lived his whole life in the Bronx. He has two kids, including a son who was going to call him in an hour when his plane landed in Europe. He showed us his entire wedding album! I don't think he was one of the 20% of residents there with no dementia whatsoever, but he was quite lucid, and someone I actually enjoyed talking to.
As part of our orientation last week, the rabbi on our faculty who is coordinating these visits explained the point: We're not doing this as a community service project, and we're not really doing this to better ourselves. We're doing this because there are these people here who need to be visited. And so I did. After that first visit, I took some time, took a breather, went and found that rabbi, and asked him if the point was to visit people less lucid and with less involved (or no) family. He said that even people like the gentleman I visited still spend most of every day alone with not much to do, and so visiting them is just as valuable.
The nervousness came back as soon as I left the first room. I had two more visits, both of which were almost as hard as the first. The first lasted about 30 seconds, when I asked a gentleman in bed if he would like a visitor, and he politely declined. (We were told to think of that as a positive visit like any other; giving someone the agency to send you away can sometimes be as good of a gift as a conversation.) And I joined a fellow volunteer at a common-area table with several other people for about a half hour. Those residents were slightly less lucid than the first guy, but it still wasn't as difficult as I feared to have a conversation with them. And I think I'm going to go find all of them next Wednesday to say hi again.
In our processing small group afterwards, I told everyone how scared I was beforehand. But I also mentioned how the nervousness went away when I was actually talking to residents. (The anstiness, on the other hand, did not go away; 2 hours is a long time for an introvert to talk to any sorts of strangers.) I said that once I really realized that I was not visiting "a dementia" or "a sick" or "an old", but a person, it was suddenly much easier. And of course I knew intellectually that these people are all real people, with real lives and histories and stories, but it wasn't until I was in a room with one of them that I understood a bit of what that means.
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