Lessons of Life Enrichment

                About a year ago, I was on Craigslist looking for a job. My current situation was in retail, and I absolutely hated every minute of it.

                I saw a posting for a ‘Life Enrichment Director’ position at a local senior living facility and, out of genuine curiosity, gave it a click. “What the hell is a Life Enrichment Director?” I thought to myself.

                After reading through the description, the gist of it seemed to be “keep the old folks happy.” The starting pay was more than I was currently making, so I thought, “What the hell, why not?” and sent in my resume. I knew I wasn’t going to get the job. The only relevant experience I had was working as a caregiver for individuals with developmental disabilities and the fact that I’m a deeply compassionate person…who has worked in customer service. I had never had a management position, dealt with volunteers, nor had I worked with seniors other than my grandparents.

                Not long after, I interviewed for a job at a shop that sold scrubs. Yes, it was another retail position, but it came with a higher paycheck and pretty amazing benefits for what it was. I was called in for a second interview, but before I went in, I also received a call from the senior living facility’s Administrator, who was interested in having a one-on-one with me. I scheduled it for the day after the second interview just in case the scrub shop went well…then I’d cancel it. The man who owned the scrub shop assured me that he loved everything about me and that the position was practically mine, but that he had to conduct one more interview as a formality. The woman who managed the shop told me the same thing. “I can’t wait to work with you!” she said. This was great! I was so excited!

That was until he called me and told me that he decided to go with the other candidate instead.

I cried to my husband (then fiancé) about it. Over a job selling scrubs, mind you. It wasn’t the fact that I didn’t get the job, but because I felt deceived.

Luckily, I was able to pull myself together in time for the Life Enrichment Director interview. Lo and behold, and by some dumb luck, I was offered the position! Boy did I feel stupid for crying over scrubs.

Now, this position was foreign territory for me. I was “interviewed” by a group of residents that live here. They were known as “the Clique”, or for my Mean Girls fans, “the Plastics”. Those women really know how to make you feel like you’re under the microscope!

“I noticed you have a lot of tattoos. How do you think that will go over with everyone?”

“Do you feel comfortable with serving us cookies every day?”

“Are you willing to play cards with us every afternoon at 3?”

“Do you believe in God?”

I told them about my plans as director, and assured them that just because I had tattoos, it spoke nothing of my character. After a brief chat, they were satisfied.

After that day, my entire view of the Greatest Generation was turned on its head.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known that we are to be respectful and mindful of our elders. I also know that when most people picture seniors, they see someone who is cranky because everything just hurts all the time, or because they’ve been through enough already, so they just don’t have any time for anyone’s crap.

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While that is partially true, after speaking to and observing this group of senior citizens, I realized that the view that most people have of the bygone generation is largely misconstrued.

I now saw a people who were engineers, business owners, teachers,  artists, musicians, stenographers…BRILLIANT PEOPLE. People whose bodies and minds have started to fail them. People who are frustrated that they have lost their sense of independence as it once was. People whose family only visits them once every few months, if at all. People who just want to feel like people.

Though I have witnessed staff come through that were rude or argumentative with the residents, the ones who have stuck around do such an important thing for these folks. They are helping hand. They are a shoulder to cry on. They help maintain a certain sense of dignity and preserve their sense of humanity.  They are surrogate children and grandchildren.

The job that I accepted wasn’t just one of running activities, it was as the title suggested; to enrich the lives of these brilliant people who felt as though they have been forgotten by society. To help them remember who they are, and acknowledge who they once were. To sing, dance, laugh, cry and absolutely love them.

I was given the opportunity to spearhead several programs at the facility that I am extremely proud of; Music Makes Memories was my baby. Though I care for all of the residents I've had the pleasure of meeting, I've always had a soft spot for the seniors in memory care. The program revolves around the fact that music stimulates the limbic brain, causing lost memories to resurface and help each person maintain a sense of self and purpose. It was amazing to see people whose brains had been ravaged by disease, who had forgotten their husbands, their homes, and much more suddenly begin to remember bits and pieces of their lives. All that needed to be done to accomplish this was play the music that they cherished throughout their lives. I could write an entire article on just this alone, but for now I suggest that you read the works of Dr. Oliver Sacks, or even just watching the documentary 'Alive Inside,' just make sure to bring some tissues if you choose the latter. 

 One of our monthly birthday parties, where we would have our cake and eat it too! 

One of our monthly birthday parties, where we would have our cake and eat it too! 

Residents in these communities come and go. No, they don’t simply just move out, they go from this physical plane of existence. They know that being here marks the countdown to the end of their lives. Though death is a natural part of life, there is always pain and heartbreak left in its wake. One of the most beautiful, but difficult, things I’ve experienced are the deep connections formed between the residents and staff.

One of the most recent losses we all experienced was the passing of Jack. He was a man that I had shared many wonderful conversations with about classical music, good cheese, stiff drinks and tropical islands. He would often speak fondly of his wife who had passed only 2 years ago.  It seemed like he was here one day and gone the next when in reality he was wracked with pain on a constant basis and had been ready to die for as long as he had been with us. His family recounted his younger days as an extraordinarily jolly and active father as he was taking his final breaths, and I believed every word of it. When the funeral home came to claim his body, the hallway was lined with his family, caregivers, and management. We all clung to each other tearfully as they wheeled him away on the gurney, draped in an American flag.

 Classic Jack. 

Classic Jack. 

As I am writing this, I am working through my final few days as a Life Enrichment Director. I was offered the opportunity to pursue my career as an Information Technology professional. While I am ecstatic about this new chapter in my life, I am saddened at the idea of leaving my home away from home. I am already looking forward to all of the visits I will pay my surrogate grandparents!

In closing, I’d like to suggest a few things:

·         Visit your grandparents more if you are still blessed with their physical presence.

·         If you see a senior citizen sitting alone in a diner or at a park, offer up a kind word. You never know how long it’s been since they’ve exchanged pleasantries with someone. Maybe you’ll even be lucky enough to strike up a conversation!

·         Volunteer at a nursing home or assisted living community. Like I mentioned previously, many residents haven’t had visits from family in such a long time.

·         Donate to senior living facilities. Socks, puzzles, board games, books, toiletries; these items are always greatly appreciated. Trust me.

·         Just be nice to your elders. Always.

Though my time at this facility was brief, I have learned so much about myself, and the capacity human beings have for compassion, empathy and pure love. This incredible experience will not ever be forgotten. I have considered it an honor and a privilege to spend these moments with each wonderful resident here.