I don’t do many scheduled extracurricular activities with my five kids aged eight and under, but when my friend Miriam, who looked after my four older kids while I was in hospital giving birth to John, told me she was organising a homeschool choir to sing carols in homes for the elderly, I signed up immediately.
First of all, there’s singing Christmas carols. I always have a hard time believing Christmas is approaching at the same time as hot weather every year here in Australia, so carols help orient me.
Then there are the other benefits for my children: singing in a choir, giving a little something back, and spending some time with older people. My kids don’t have many opportunities to see their grandparents who live an ocean away, and none of their great-grandparents are living now. We do see older people at church, but we don’t always stop to talk with them.
Going into this choir commitment, my thought was that the singing would be lovely (it is) and that the time at the old folks home would be just barely tolerable.
That’s where I was completely surprised.
I had the privilege to visit my mother’s father in a nursing home a few times. I could have visited more often, and wish now that I had; my mother visited him nearly every day. The time she spent with him made a considerable impact on his quality of life. Although severely crippled by a stroke, Grandpa was more mobile and his mind sharper than many of the people he lived with. He was always upbeat, cheerful, and singing a hymn or sharing a joke.
But it was tough to visit Grandpa because even the well-run facility he lived in had that strong smell of cleaners covering up other odours. Various people were moaning or rambling or just staring vacantly into space. It was a harsh reminder that none of us is immortal, and that our bodies and minds will fail us.
And, because smelling that smell, and seeing those vacant or distraught people, has been my experience of every nursing home I’ve visited in America or Australia, I was absolutely astounded when the nursing facility my kids sang at yesterday, exclusively catering to the poorest of the elderly, was far and away the most pleasant one I had visited.
Glendalough House is run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who have taken a “vow of hospitality”. Their life’s work is to treat every person in their care as if he or she was Jesus.
There were no moans or people stranded around the hallways. There was no smell – not even of air fresheners. It was just clean, like a regular home. We spoke to the 30 or so people who walked or rolled in to attend the choir performance, and each person was able to carry on a conversation. One woman told me she was 95, and although there was no hint that she was joking, I still have trouble believing she was not at least 20 years younger than that.
The work of the Little Sisters inspires me. I wonder how my life and the lives of those around me would be different if I started treating everyone as if he or she was, as Mother Teresa put it, Jesus “in a distressing disguise.”