The nursing home was done up for Thanksgiving. There were stuffed turkeys on bookshelves, twinkly lights on the nurse’s station, and one of the cafeteria workers wore a puritan hat shaped like a traffic cone.
I was here to make an appearance at the book club.
The nurse buzzed me through the front doors. She gave me a name tag.
“They’re ready for you,” she said. “Follow me, please.”
We walked past a hallway adorned with colorful artwork. One wall featured a dozen tempera-paint handprints on individual sheets of construction paper. The handprints were decorated to look like turkeys.
“Art therapy,” the nurse explained. “Our residents just did fingerpainting. I’ll be cleaning paint off the ceiling till June.”
I felt vaguely like I was touring a kindergarten classroom. All that was missing was a portrait of George Washington and the class hamster.
She led me to the garden area where a small group of elderly people sat in a semicircle beneath the North Florida sunshine, waiting for yours truly. They were seated in folding chairs, wheelchairs, and roller walkers.
“Okay,” announced the nurse. “Let’s give today’s guest author a warm welcome.”
When the deafening applause from my six-person audience finally died down, club meeting was in session.
It bears mentioning that I don’t get many requests for in-person book club visits anymore. I used to, but these days most book clubs prefer internet video calls.
I faithfully fielded questions from club members. The inquiries about my book came in all shapes and sizes.
“Your chapters were too short,” said one man.
“You bounce around topics too much,” said another. “I couldn’t follow your writing.”
Another woman weighed in. “The print was too small. I had a headache five minutes in. I couldn’t finish your book.”
Another lady cheerfully added, “Did you bring any peanut butter?”
And then it was time for lunch.
On my way out, I listened to two old ladies have a vicious argument about something pertaining to—I swear—HGTV. And one club member asked me with complete sincerity what I did for a living.
“You should stay for lunch,” said the nurse.
“Right,” I said, “because clearly these people love me.”
She laughed. “No, they’re like that with all the authors.”
“You mean there have been other authors? Was there enough of them left to bury?”
“These people grow on you. Come on. Eat with us.”
The aromas of the nursing home cafeteria were reminiscent of a grade school mess hall, and the basic premise was the same, too. You stood in line, then presented your tray to a clinically depressed cafeteria worker behind a sneeze guard who doled out lukewarm chipped chopped ham on a bun. Surprisingly, the food was great.
I had lots of company for my lunch. I was—to put it mildly—the novelty that afternoon.
“We don’t get many visitors,” said one elderly woman. “Can I sit beside you?”
“You look like my son,” remarked another. “Do you know my son? He used to visit me before he got so busy.”
“Hey,” said a persistent white-haired man. “Do you like chess? I used to play chess every day, but I can’t find nobody to play with me no more. Can you play with me? Please?”
When you visit an assisted living facility, if you hang around long enough, and eat enough chipped ham, you will eventually start to hear stories. This just goes with the territory.
The stories will come at you like coal from an industrial barge. You must be ready for this or the tales will overwhelm you. But if you listen, you might actually learn something.
“…I died on the operating table, the doctor said I’d be lucky to live until forty. I’ll be ninety next month.”
“When I was a girl in Texas, nobody wanted to adopt my sister and me after my mom shot herself. But a lady in our town who couldn’t have kids adopted us. She became our mama even though she was Mexican and we were white.”
“…I lost my daughter and my husband on the same day. We had a double funeral, and I wished it had been a triple funeral. I didn’t think I would survive, but God brought me through.”
“…Can I show you a picture of my wife? I have a picture in my wallet. God I miss her.”
“…Cancer tried to kill me three times and didn’t succeed.”
“…The biggest thing I miss about being young is getting dressed up to go do stuff.”
“…Even at this age, I’m still trying to learn to forgive my parents.”
“…I wish I would have been more adventurous when I was younger.”
“…Laughter is the most important drug there is except for my heart meds. Those’re pretty important, too.”
After the cafeteria trays were cleaned, a few residents headed off to their rooms for naps. A few ladies trotted away to chair yoga class while an art lesson started in the rec room.
One happy old man was setting up a chessboard for himself and a partner.
I showed myself to the door. But before I left, one of the elderly ladies handed me a piece of construction paper with a tempera handprint on it.
“This is for you,” she said. “I loved your book. And I just want you to know that you are loved.”
Not exactly the worst day ever.
Lisa K Riley - November 21, 2021 7:31 am
All they want is love. Thank you for being gracious and listening.
Miz Liz - November 21, 2021 7:33 am
Sweet. You are loved,Sean. I especially love you for loving and caring about and understanding us old folks. Very few people care tho some try. We oldsters must love them anyway. Sadly, One day they will know. YOU, are especially warm and good and kind. Thank you for loving us.
I will keep my other comments to my old, 84.9 soul. Even though most of my thoughts are warm and good and kind. 😌
Sandi. - November 21, 2021 8:44 am
Good post, Sean. I hope I never end up in a nursing home, but if I do, I pray that my adult children and their children will come visit me often.
Ed (Bear) - November 21, 2021 9:54 am
I enjoy your writing very much. Especially when you write about old people. You are able to reflect the richness of their lives with only a few words. Yes, you are loved Mr. Sean of the South!
Sue Rhodus - November 21, 2021 11:46 am
What a blessing for you !! These beautiful seniors are full of love and usually with no filter !! But love comes from their heart. I am privileged to work with this generation that time and people want to push aside. Bless you for giving them your time. Sean. You are loved.
Becky Capps - November 21, 2021 12:09 pm
I work as a Hospice Chaplain and yes! The stories abound if you sit still and listen. ❤️
Jan - November 21, 2021 12:44 pm
Loved this! It brought back memories of visiting my Mom in assisted living. I could almost feel and smell the place where she lived her last years and took her last breath. It takes special people to work there and truly love the work and the people. Thank you, Sean.
Lynette Wedig - November 21, 2021 1:38 pm
Thank you for caring.
Dee Jordan - November 21, 2021 1:55 pm
I live in an independent living senior retirement community, so really identified with this. Many seniors get meaner and meaner as they age, some are truly funny, when they lose their marbles: Yesterday at my table a man, Mr. G., was telling us about his wife in rehab who recently fell and broke her hip. I figured they were both in their 90s, so I asked, “How old is your wife?” He replied, “68.” Another person at the table asked him if he robbed the grave. I asked him how long they had been married and he replied, “69 years!” I hit pay dirt as a writer when I retired in University Oaks. Great article and oh, so very true! Thanks for sharing!
Paul McCutchen - November 21, 2021 2:20 pm
That is probably where I am headed more sooner than later. Having been adventurous when I was young gave me artificial parts and arthritis but then again I wouldn’t have traded it for anything,
Ruth Mitchell - November 21, 2021 2:55 pm
Thank you so much for giving a voice to those who are often abandoned by our busy society. Their stories and feelings are important, and, as you discovered, painfully honest.
Cathy M - November 21, 2021 2:55 pm
I am touched that you took the time to visit the home . Sadly, there are too many folks who spend the end of their lives in a facility . It is so sad to me that so many do not have visitors. They enjoyed your visit even if they did not care for your book. You are a good man Sean. Have a good Thanksgiving with your bride. You are a part of my morning ritual and you never let me down❤️🙏🏻
Karen - November 21, 2021 3:02 pm
Sean, you are a blessing to many.
Chasity Davis Ritter - November 21, 2021 4:29 pm
I hope you put that handprint right on your fridge so you will always know you are loved. And you are!!
Spoma Jovanovic - November 21, 2021 4:51 pm
I just finished The Incredible Winston Browne, the first of your books for me, but not the last. Your humor and care in the book and the nursing home are absolutely lovely!
Suellen - November 21, 2021 5:13 pm
One thing I’ve learned about getting older you start to become invisible. Another thing is that I’ve found myself telling the same stories over again. Reminiscing about the past and my friends and family that are no longer with us. When you’re younger you laugh at the old folks doing this but now I understand. They’re my stories, the stories about my life, when I’m gone they will be gone too. In today’s society we shunt so many of our elderly off into nursing homes and they are starved for conversation. Without it their minds go dull. Thanks for being someone who not only takes the time to visit but really listens.
Dee Jordan - November 21, 2021 7:37 pm
You are so very right. Our conversations are disappearing and our stories will be lost, and that is scary as all get out!
JB - November 21, 2021 6:05 pm
Thank you for taking the time to go. There is a big difference between a nursing home and an assisted living so I’m uncertain as to which you were at but from your description, I’m leaning towards nursing center. Sadly, there are so many elderly who do not get many visitors so its wonderful that you took a few minute4s and spent some time with some of our nation’s most precious resources. Have a lovely Thanksgiving.
MAM - November 21, 2021 6:42 pm
I’ve always loved interviewing the “older” ones. I hope to get a book of them compiled and published next year. Keep up the great writing, Sean. Your essays make my day!
Bill - November 21, 2021 7:56 pm
At times, it’s the little things that mean a lot.
Stacey Patton Wallace - November 21, 2021 9:39 pm
Sean, thanks; you are such a blessing to my husband Mike and me. Old people are antiques, and so are worth a lot of money, as my 104-year-old grandmother, Mother Mac, once said. She’s right. Shame on anyone “too busy” to visit their parents. No one is THAT busy! Love you and Jamie!
Linda Moon - November 21, 2021 11:45 pm
I had my 12th birthday party at “The Club”. I was not elderly then, and now I’m all grown up. You are so kind to have let these people grow a little bit on you while they were telling their stories, and I’m so glad that the handprint-lady loved on you. I’m loving on you right now. I hope you’ve had a good day. I did. LOVE, again, from me.
Karen Snyder - November 22, 2021 4:20 am
❤️❤️❤️ Bless you for caring.
Suzi - December 1, 2021 2:01 am