While many of my peers were spending the last Saturday of their Thanksgiving breaks with friends or family, or even finishing up some last minute homework, I was spending mine volunteering at a nursing home.

This was personally significant for a number of reasons. First of all, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I have always had a certain degree of fear when it comes to the elderly. There’s a feeling of precariousness that I often experience around older people, as if their bones might shatter at any moment or a heart attack will suddenly strike their fragile body. I move slowly and choose my words carefully. I cringe when a simple task becomes tedious and prolonged, requiring great concentration and effort. Every minute is stretched and strained, and when at last this time is over, I feel the need for a deep gulp of air or a quick run, to be reminded of my own vitality.

At least, this has always been my experience in the past. On Saturday, however, I was deeply privileged to meet some people who would change that for me.

I started the day expecting to work in the kitchen or perhaps clean somewhere. But instead, I was told to socialize with the nursing home’s residents for a while. Many of them were just waking up from mid-morning naps, so I floundered around awkwardly for a little, unsure how to start an interaction. Finally, an aide introduced me to a woman rocking slowly in the middle of the room. As I lowered  myself beside her chair, she reached for my hand with a grip that was surprisingly strong. Her own hands were beautiful–pale pink nails carefully shaped and polished, slender fingers enveloped in delicate wrinkles, and very small wrists, one of which was gilded with a thin gold bracelet.

She complimented me on my eyes, noticing, she said, because hers were blue too.

We talked about Thanksgiving, and she launched into a story about her mother’s cooking, lamenting that she had never been a very good cook herself. When I asked if she had any children, she paused, looking down at her hand holding my own. I asked again, wondering if she had heard me, but she never replied. Afraid that I had touched a nerve, I moved the conversation back to Thanksgiving, and she immediately began talking freely again.

The next resident that I spent time with was a mentally handicapped man who appeared to be in his late 70s or 80s, but was actually much younger. I had trouble understanding him at first, but an aide was able to “translate” his speech for me. As I sat with him, other residents would roll by in their wheelchairs or on motorized scooters, and he often called out their names and waved. It soon became clear that he was one of the friendliest, most outgoing residents, clearly a favorite among his fellow residents and the staff as well. I heard stories about him pushing his call button every night at least two or three times, just so he could give the nursing assistants goodnight kisses.

When I asked if I could take a picture with him, he gave me a huge grin and threw his arm around me, pulling me close for the photo.

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Washing dishes in the nursing home kitchen

As the day went on, I took part in a variety of activities: serving lunch to the residents, helping out in the kitchen, washing dishes, and visiting some residents in their rooms.

One particularly memorable visit was with an elderly woman whom I had known when I was a little girl. I would see her at church every Sunday where she always greeted me with a very tight hug and some candy. She would ask me questions and tell me stories or Bible verses or even a joke.

Seeing her was the highlight of my Sunday mornings.

As I walked into her room at the nursing home, I was sure she wouldn’t remember me. And at first, she didn’t. But when I told her my parents’ names, something seemed to click in her brain.

Ohhh, Sarah, she exclaimed. She remembered me.

She commented on how much I had grown. She asked me about school and about my family, and just as I was getting ready to leave, she offered me chocolate from a box sitting on her dresser. She may not have physically been able to wrap me up in one of her legendary hugs, but she still had that same kindness and generosity that made everyone around her feel so special.

When I asked a staff member how she liked working at the nursing home, she smiled and said that she loved it. Prior to volunteering there, I would have been surprised and probably wondered to myself how anyone could tolerate such a job.

And while it does take a special kind of person to be able to spend every day in a nursing home, I can certainly see how easy it would be to become fond of the place. There is something unique about spending time with people who have an entire lifetime of experience to share and to be learned from.

In just one day, I felt so privileged to get a small glimpse of life in this special place.