When I was twelve, I volunteered at a nursing home. Like all new candy stripers, I started as a transporter. My job consisted of picking up and delivering residents to the in-house beauty parlor for their weekly appointments to perm and set their hair.
A few times, I mistakenly brought the wrong ladies to the parlor. They’d tell me they didn’t remember having an appointment and I’d insist that they did. By the time I wheeled them downstairs they were giddy with excitement about a new hairdo. The beauticians couldn’t turn them away at that point. As you can imagine, this caused a bit of a problem. Days I worked ladies lined the walls waiting for their turn in the chair.
Not long after that, the volunteer coordinator reassigned me to floater. My entire shift I visited patients. If I saw someone who looked lonely, I stopped in and stayed awhile. For a talkative type, it was a dream job.
I quickly learned that it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t say but only that I came. Everyone’s got a little lonely tucked deep inside. Everyone wants to know that someone cared enough to show up. I’ve tried to remember the lesson my 12-year-old self taught me.
Which brings me to today.
I’m at the Hyde Park Center for Older Adults teaching a cookie decorating class. We’re at capacity with twenty-three seniors signed up.
“If you make a mistake,” I start my usual spiel, “eat it before anyone notices.” That always gets a few giggles. I explain how we’ll be working with a corn syrup-based icing I’ve filled into clear plastic ketchup bottles. “It’s much more forgiving,” I explain, “but much, much stickier.”
For the next hour, we talk about favorite recipes and holiday baking traditions as we decorate. The time passes quickly. We eat as much as we laugh.
As the aides return to wheel many seniors back to their rooms, I notice one woman with wrinkled, brown speckled hands who waits patiently in her wheelchair. As I come around the table toward her I notice the icing that covers her fingers and palms.
“May I wash your hands?” I ask, turning to the sink to wet a thick paper towel. I take her hands in mine and gently wipe the red-tinted corn syrup from their creases. She smiles and begins to talk. I kneel beside her chair, hold her hands and listen. I’m here and I’m in no rush to leave.