Heaven's waiting room
FLORIDA, USA – After my job as a copywriter left me dissatisfied with a meager salary, I found myself in the receiving area of a small ALF (short for Assisted Living Facility, which is a type of retirement home), anxiously waiting for a job interview. I never thought I'd ever find myself in such a place, but there I was, mentally practicing my introduction just like I would in any other job interview.
After getting bored scrutinizing the brush strokes of still life paintings on the walls, I decided to say hello to some of the residents in the living room. Some of them replied with a high degree of enthusiasm while others simply nodded, then proceeded to stare blankly into space, presumably contemplating sad existentialist interpretations of Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" piping through the PA System in low volume.
After about 15 minutes of waiting, the owner of the facility called me in. She was nice, but she seemed too busy to receive a firm handshake from an eager job seeker like myself. After a quick look at my yellow collared shirt and neatly ironed slacks, she adjusted her glasses and read my application form.
She asked: “Do you have any experience in this field?”
Nada. But I knew she was looking for people and was interested in hiring anyone willing to work. All I had to do was smile – no matter how nervous I was, and tell her about my positive attributes – no matter how few they were.
After a brief pause, she told me that she didn't normally hire boys because some female residents didn't like it. “But I'll give you a try only because you were recommended to me,” she said, and smiled wryly. “Do you think you can do it?”
“Yes, of course, ma'am.” I tried hard to veil my self-doubt by forcing a faint smile on my face. I was slightly concerned that despite the owner being aware that I am an adult, she still referred to me as a boy and not a man. I knew she had doubts about hiring me, and she had every right to feel that way. The turnover rate in assisted living facilities is so high, even the most desperate job seekers normally only last a day or two in training.
The nurses and employees observed me from behind the med room, ready to bet on each other how long I'd last. But I was determined to stay. After a long time struggling to hold a stable job as a writer, I was finally ready to search for other avenues to earn money. Working as a writer is tough. During an 8-month stint as a journalist in the Philippines last year, I was so poor I had to give up my Coca-Cola addiction. Instead, I learned to drink a bottle of Yakult, with all of its gut-cleansing Lactobacilli, in increments to make it last a day. My stomach had never felt so clean...and empty.
Returning to the United States, I realized that nobody in their right mind was ever going to hire a college drop-out who unsurprisingly cites Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, two deviant journalists with peculiar writing styles, as his major influences. I knew I had to look for other ways to earn money. Yet even outside of the literary industry, nobody wanted to hire me.
Florida remains to be a premiere vacation spot in the United States, known for its pristine beaches and Disney World among countless other attractions. But since the market crash in 2007, it has also become one of the most economically depressed states in the country. The state's current unemployment rate appears to show some improvement from last year's fiscal statistics, but this is mostly due to the fact that most people have simply given up looking for work.
The facade of stress-free living depicted in Florida's tourism ads is a distant reality among its residents as they find themselves worrying more about paying the bills and keeping their homes than kicking back and enjoying a steady stream of umbrella-topped drinks, singing along to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville like nothing else in the world mattered. There are many people in Florida looking for work. Unfortunately, most businesses here have either downsized or stopped hiring altogether; retirement and nursing homes seem to be among the few places left that still regularly offer employment opportunities.
Land of opportunity?
I had never ever considered working as a caregiver in my life. I had thought my future was bright, but I was wrong. For the longest time, I wondered why Filipinos here tend to gravitate towards labor-intensive work and not strive for more comfortable white collar jobs. I thought that if America is the land of opportunity, why would they want to live the American dream as caregivers? But after finding myself inside an ALF office, practically begging for a job, I began to understand that whatever most Filipinos do here is not by choice, but out of necessity; you have to learn to do just about anything to survive – even if it means changing other people's diapers.
It's quite astounding that despite the economic uncertainty that continues to plague the United States, many Filipinos still itch to try their luck in this country. For many, America is still viewed as a place where they are bound to realize their goals. Those lucky enough to come to the United States eventually realize that America is, as a matter of fact, just another land of limited opportunities. For many who once fantasized of seeing wonderful places in the country, ending up looking at other people's behinds instead can be quite a downer, but at least they have better chances of lifting their family out of poverty than they had in the Philippines. Many Filipino caregivers here don't even have a social life to talk about. Some prefer to work extra hours to send more money to the Philippines, while others suffer from chronic fatigue, going out becomes a chore.
On my first day at work, I was tasked to wheel the residents in and out of the dining hall for breakfast and lunch. The whole scene looked like a page ripped straight right off Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, where “everybody is driven like mad to keep up with that passing of fake time; awful scramble of shaves and breakfasts and appointments and lunches and medications and ten minutes of night so you barely get your eyes closed before the dorm light's screaming at you to get up and start the scramble again.”
The med room is the nerve center of the facility. It is where the staff congregate and are dispatched to their designated halls. It is where the pills and important medical documents are stashed. Also, inside it is a sign on the wall that displays the daily census which, at first glance, somewhat reminded me of the counters in banks that display the ticket numbers for waiting customers. The head count that day was 38. I couldn't help but wonder when Death would announce the next number with a foreboding grin: “Now serving #38! Now serving #38!”
“It's heaven's waiting room,” one of the nurses told me. ALFs and nursing homes are places where people just wait to die, and what a sad way to spend the last days of their lives. ALFs are virtually unheard of in countries where people value family and community more – hence my explanation in parentheses in the first paragraph about what ALFs are.
Americans seem to value independence too much and champion the individual's triumph. Americans are practically wired from birth to do things all on their own – and as a consequence, most of them also die all alone. Of course that's not always the case, but there's still a fair percentage of senior citizens that end up spending the last stages of their lives in retirement homes without much needed companionship. After merely a few hours of working in the facility, I could feel how lonely most of these people were. I find it too difficult to imagine how friends and family of a deceased resident could recall their fondest memories at the funeral while completely omitting the time when they left the resident by themselves when they needed company the most.
What used to be
After spending some time with the residents, I began to wonder what their lives used to be when they were younger. People change drastically when they get old. It doesn't matter if you used to be a decorated soldier, or a renowned doctor, or a beauty queen – one way or another, everyone suffers in old age.
In room 212, there was a picture of one of the residents dancing in the arms of her husband with her eyes closed, smiling with such an infectious bliss, one would think it was the happiest moment in her life. But she deteriorated faster than Kodak photo paper could fade. It was painful to watch her in a catatonic state, barely blinking and not moving in her bed.
The resident in Room 109 had her 100th Birthday candles displayed on her table like trophies gathering dust. Reaching such an age is considered a significant achievement to many, but she didn't appear to think too much about it. She was more concerned about the ordeal she had to go through getting out of her bed and walking to the bathroom just to urinate. “Don't ever get to live my age,” she told me on my very first day at work.
“As they say, live fast die young!” I responded with a grin.
Our society is so obsessed with long life (and even immortality), we don't seem to realize the consequences that go with it. Among the dozens of magazines sprawled across the table in the facility's living room was National Geographic's May 2013 cover story, "This Child Will Live to be 120," featuring exceptional seniors who did not only exceed the current life expectancy, but also remain to live active lives – the crème de la crème of the senior population.
What National Geographic's feature failed to include, however, is the inevitability of these individuals' eventual physical and mental decline. Even if scientists successfully engineered healthier genes to prolong life, everyone is still bound to die – and I guarantee that the really old people in ALFs can vouch for how difficult that process can be. Not long ago, even Google announced their plans to cure Death. It struck me strange that they used the word "cure" as if death was a disease and not a natural occurrence.
After working in the daytime for two days, they scheduled me to work the night shift. Most of the caregivers there dreaded working at night, but it worked perfectly for me since I'm an insomniac. It was easy for the most part since that's when the residents sleep, and all I really had to do was to make sure they were dry, then get them up for breakfast in the morning. However, I quickly learned that it's really hard to tell apart the lifeless bodies from breathing ones when all the residents have their eyes closed. A majority of them even have their mouths open and look like Pompeii mummies perpetually gasping for air.
The Rococo portraits and antique furniture that decorated the facility also made the place look really creepy at night. I'm not the type to believe in the paranormal, but I made sure I didn't lock eyes with those portraits during ungodly hours. I didn't want to test the spirits, in case they were any.
After several nights, the residents grew accustomed to my presence, and I began to befriend some of them. “Don't try to get too close to the residents,” one of the nurses warned. But after figuring out each of the resident's idiosyncrasies, I found most of them to be colorful, likeable characters.
There was 218, a former librarian who called me a “really bad boy” when I told her that Kerouac, Bukowski, and Salinger were my favorite fiction authors. I was really eager to talk books with her until her mental and physical condition began to decline to the point that even simple conversations became difficult.
214 weighed more than 200 pounds. On my first day, she scoffed when I told her I was going to help her get out of bed. I didn't really have any problems with her. She could stand up with minimal assistance. The only time I encountered any problem with her was when my thumb got stuck behind her heel while putting on her shoe. I didn't sustain any injuries, except my thumb was slightly swollen for two days.
115 kept insisting that I lived with him because according to him, I was a "nice person." He was a D-day veteran and was really proud of marrying the prettiest girl in town – up until laid eyes on one of my coworkers, of course. He asked her to marry him while she was changing his diaper. “Not the sweetest way to propose to a lady,” she told him.
104, on her good days, would blow me a kiss and say “see you later, alligator” before I leave the room. On her bad days, she would have bizarre hallucinations. Once, she pressed the panic button just to let us know she was being “crucified.”
111, the resident every nurse and aide loves, would always rub her chin in her chair like Rodin's The Thinker. “She's the president of the United States,” she once told us. Whenever she heard music (usually high pitched piano music), she would automatically shake her shoulders like some sound-activated toy with a broken servo.
114, who I assumed was a former teacher, judging from a black and white picture of her in a classroom in front of kids, seemed to have a very interesting story. An aide told me that she adopted some children and funded their schooling. I wanted to share stories with her, but her breathing problem prevented her from engaging in long conversations. However, she would tell me every once in a while in between breaths that I was too young to be working there, and that I deserved much more.
Embarrassed at first
Perhaps I deserved much more. My girlfriend warned me that I might get really depressed working at an ALF, and for a while, I thought I would, but working with old people somehow gave me a real sense of purpose in life. It later dawned on me that Filipinos are more inclined to do this type of work as compared to average Americans because our cultural milieu has conditioned us to take care of our elders. It's hard, of course, but taking care of people comes naturally for us.
When I was younger, I heard of sad stories of Filipinos working the oddest jobs just so they could provide their families a better future. But I never truly understood their situation until I started working with people who are the moms and aunts and grandmas of Filipino kids. Sometimes I wonder if my coworkers' kids have any idea how much their parents had to toil just to give their young ones the newest iPhone or a brand new DSLR (since it seems to be all the rage in the Philippines these days), and I wonder if their kids care at all while they take selfies sporting new gadgets from the U S of A.
For quite sometime, only my closest friends and family knew about my job as a caregiver. Quite bluntly, I was embarrassed about it. After all, it's not necessarily the kind of career I could share with other people at dinner dates or parties. I don't think it's appropriate to teach them the technique of changing people's diapers while they talk about 401Ks, investments, and countless business opportunities. However, until a better opportunity comes my way, I really don't mind making some people's lives a little bit better every day – even if it means a lot of sacrifices and difficulties.
After several days of working at the facility, I was warned by one of my coworkers about how old people get a little cuckoo during a full moon. I easily dismissed her as being too superstitious until I began to see evidence of unusual behavior in some of the residents. That night, most of the residents couldn't seem to get any sleep. Some kept walking out of their rooms while the immobile patients found screaming very cathartic to expel whatever bad spirits they had in their room that night. We were behind with work, and all I could think about was getting out of that place.
It was about 15 minutes before 7 am when my coworker called me. “We have an emergency,” she declared, then quickly paced toward Room 114. I thought the resident fell out of her bed so I fixed the sleeves of my shirt and adjusted my gloves to pick her up. When we got there, my coworker stayed by the door and asked me to take her pulse in a rather disconcerting tone. I knew then what was about to confront me. 114, the woman who I was eager to share stories with, was now dead.
I felt a wild vortex of emotions in my stomach. I froze and did not know what to do. I wasn't really afraid of the dead body in front of me. I was more afraid of the consequences of her death. 114 died under my watch and I was afraid of being accused of negligence. I checked her like I was supposed to and did all my responsibilities, but at the same time, I couldn't help but think that there must have been something else I could have done to help her.
My coworkers, as well as my parents, told me that there was nothing I could have done to save her, but no one seemed to give me the comfort that I needed. I kept thinking about 114's death while driving back to work the next evening. When it got too overwhelming, I decided to turn the radio on. After sporadic bursts of static and bad pop music, I found Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" on a classic radio station just as they were singing these lines:
“We'd like to learn more about you for our files
We'd like to help you learn to help yourself
Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.”
In all the years I'd listened to the song, I never really knew what the lines meant, exactly, but after all that I had just experienced, I realized that they were probably describing Mrs Robinson in a retirement home. With 114 in mind, I sang along:
“...and here's to you Mrs Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know
God bless you, please, Mrs Robinson
Heaven holds a place for those who pray.”
I cried and I smiled. Granted that she was a Christian, I knew she was finally in heaven. I threw a peace sign out the car window and bid 114 good-bye. – Rappler.com
Chad Verzosa is a freelance journalist and caregiver currently based in Tampa, Florida.