The uplifting melody and inspirational lyric of "You’ll Never Walk Alone" have made the Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hymn-like source of hope for millions of people around the world.
The song’s title also has special meaning for me. At 84, I’m on the final journey of my life. Disabled, I’m in need of a caring hand to grasp as I travel this path. Living in a long-term care facility, the hand may be available, but not ready to grip. My journey — the quality of my remaining years — is in the hands of a caregiver.
People live in an assisted living facility because they can't or don't want to do things for themselves — or their children don’t want them to. One lives in a nursing home because she or he is fragile or disabled and helpless. One lives in a memory care center because he or she can’t remember, or think or walk or talk or eat and drink.
Despite the helplessness, I think the desire of elders in long term care facilities is to retain their sense of dignity, purpose, and value as an individual person.
How can the desire for meaning and meaningfulness materialize? It needs to inhere in the attitude of the owners and administrators of the long term care facility. They are the providers who enable purposeful, supportive living. They are the force that allows me to value me. They lead those who assist the handicapped, enable the disabled, think for the noncognitive. A provider deploys the caregivers who execute the spirit of the provider.
The caregivers are the front line of contact with those who need care. However temporary the relationship, their lives conjoin with those elders. We residents of long-term care facilities have been loaned to the caregivers to provide the care that ensures the quality of our final years.
Some responsibility! Is the caregiver aware of this transcendental obligation?
If you’re a caregiver, you don’t just insert a hearing aid for a hearing-deprived resident, you don’t just give a shower to a manually disabled resident, you don’t just wipe a totally dependent resident. In short, you do more than assist a resident perform the activities of daily living: you become the human bridge that carries a trace of dignity to the helpless, that empathizes with their inability and uncertainty.
But building the bridge of empathy is not the caregiver’s job alone. This obligation belongs to the owners, administrators, and managers of long term care facilities. They conceive the vision, design the structure, create the processes for operating the assisted living facility, nursing home, or memory center which will enable the old, the fragile, the disabled — to write their own narratives: their stories of closing out their lives.
Perhaps the best example of the empathetic qualities of caregiving occurred when my wife, Ginny, was a resident in an Alzheimer’s facility. The caregivers who greeted my wife when she entered the facility in 2005 were the same ones who were at her death in 2013. And over the years as I visited, they greeted me by my first name. Once, as I sought to feed Ginny, her caregiver asked if I minded if she could. She said she knew Ginny’s eating weaknesses as she had been her caregiver for all those years of her residency.
My wife’s caregivers did more than feed her. They became part of her life.
She hadn’t walked alone.