Old, young, all the same.
Last week I watched a documentary called Andrew Jenks: Room 335. Made in 2006, the then 19 year-old documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks spent six weeks living with the elderly residents of an assisted living facility in Florida, USA, befriending a few residents and recording their thoughts and interactions. It was a nice little film, made with respect and heart, that illuminated what us young people often forget: that beyond the generation gap, differing opinions and superficial differences, old people want the same things we do – love, friendship, dignity, their independence, and LIFE.
I have to admit to usually avoiding watching anything to do with the elderly, hospitals, or the infirmed, as these sorts of programs usually stir up memories for me that I like to keep in my mental filing cabinet of “Things to get over with laughter and/or hard liquor”. This is the memory – or collection of memories – that came up during my documentary viewing.
In my fourteenth year of life I became an in-patient at a (now closed) rehabilitation hospital for a few months, after having major surgery that, amongst other things, caused the loss of feeling in my left arm that I still suffer from (but that’s another story). I was the only patient under 40 – most were over sixty stroke victims. The facilities were ancient, poorly lit, and cold. Luckily as the “baby” of the place and being a female, I was given the best bed in the only semi-modern room – the “Sunroom”. It had an ocean view, making my circumstance slightly less depressing. I shared the room with a bitterly funny 40 year-old woman, a stroke victim (and prior to my arrival the youngest in-patient) who, like many of the patients there, was re-learning how to speak. She carried a notebook with her everywhere and would write copious notes, as her brain injury left her with an inability to grasp the details of her day for very long.
With so many people incapacitated and unable to communicate around me, the ward often felt more like some sort of Victorian asylum. At night I had consistent trouble sleeping. The nurses would come in at 7pm(!), dispense to me a cocktail of painkillers, supplements and steroids, tuck me so tightly into bed that I literally could not move, and turn the lights off. An hour after “lights out” it would be completely silent. Then, in the middle of the night, I would hear crying – lots of it. Confused, lost, terrified elderly patients who didn’t know where they were, who couldn’t articulate the way they felt, howling in the night. Every night.
It was a scary and painful time. I missed being a normal teenager, and wondered if I would ever be one again. I missed my family and friends. Yet I deliberately kept them away, and asked my friends not to come and visit. I didn’t want them to see me so vulnerable, in such depressing surrounds, so I isolated myself. I resigned myself to being a loner until I felt strong enough to be around other people. Strangely, I was ashamed of my frailty, vulnerability. At fourteen I was already mourning my youth, and longing for my independence.
Of course when I was better (as in able to walk… I never fully recovered after that surgery) I swung to the other extreme. I behaved recklessly, overindulging my vices and taking stupid risks, as if desperately reaching for the life force and youth that I missed so terribly during extended stints in hospital.
Which is why I was quite impressed that a 19 year old would choose to spend some time in a home for the elderly. Age and loss of independence isn’t exactly the sexiest documentary subject matter. But Andrew Jenks benefited enormously from his six-week stay, which allowed him to experience the humour and personality of people whom he would have otherwise had absolutely no contact with.
I too learned much during my time in that hospital. Despite the dreariness and pain of it all, the kindness, warmth, respect and friendship that the people around me – five times my age and most with an acquired brain injury – showed me is something I will always remember. And the way that the elderly patients befriended and supported each other was really touching. It was during that time that I learnt the real meaning of the word “beautiful”.
With hindsight I understand the impact those experiences have had on who I am and how I see the world… and see the blessing in what was a pretty harrowing time. I’m 26 but in some ways I identify more with those people I met in that hospital 12 years ago, all of whom would have passed on by now, that my own peers… having passed adolescent fickleness and self-serving game playing, the patients in that hospital I interacted with met me with a purity of agenda that I still strive for in my own life. Don’t get me wrong: I’m impulsive, playful, err on the irreverent side, and after many years of depression and self-destructive behaviour, light-heartedness and detachment in my day-to-day life is an absolute religion now. But being in that hospital taught me to see – I mean really see – people, regardless of the physical package.
I hope that’s what Andrew Jenks learned to do too.