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Finding a deeper purpose

20210806_135947

Finding a deeper purpose

The journey of becoming better palliative care workers starts with ourselves.

Being in my 20s, thoughts of one day being unable to see clearly or use the toilet on my own may seem premature. However, it shouldn’t be pushed out of mind either. After all, ageing is a universal experience.

In order to journey with our residents and volunteers, I needed to begin my own journey of pondering, struggling and discovering what ageing means to me.

I first heard about St Joseph’s Home (STJH) when the Community Partnership & Communications (CP&C) department contacted me. At that time, I was running exercise programmes for seniors in the community and STJH was considering bringing this into a nursing home.

The first time I stepped into the Home, it was 7pm and the place was quiet and peaceful. The seniors were well-dressed and alert. As we eased into the workout, the seniors actively participated, and were warm and friendly towards the youth volunteers.

I continued volunteering for the next two months. Fast forward to today, I am coming to my fourth year on the job.

A personal invitation
In the CP&C department, I learnt about the various volunteer programmes. I was intrigued that they had a Beauty Spa, where residents can get chocolate facials, and even a shopping pushcart, where residents can bargain for new clothes. I was surprised that seniors in their 70s, 80s and even 100s would dress up and have fun.

The then head of CP&C believed that residents deserved the best and was filled with ideas. She also often told me, “Volunteers bring the community into the Home.” Why was that important? I assumed that the community provided a helpful distraction for residents, who were in pain and bored. So, I focused on bringing fun into the Home. A particularly memorable experience for me was an exchange between a primary school child and a resident.

The child asked, “What is your favourite food?” The resident replied, “Fried chicken. How about you?” And the child gleefully said, “I like jelly.” Then, to the child’s horror, the resident asked, “What is jelly?” Unable to explain it in Mandarin, the child wriggled his body and said, “Jelly goes like this.” Both the resident and I burst out laughing.

While this memory was pleasant, I recall a more sobering exchange. A student had witnessed the resident being particularly grumpy. So she asked the teacher, “Why is aunty so unhappy?” The teacher replied, “Because the inmates are sick and have nobody to visit them.”

I was so angry to hear the residents referred to as “inmates”. I was also disappointed that a teacher, someone in a position of influence, would say that! These children could one day be in positions of influence.

If our young people imagine the ageing experience as a despairing one, how would that affect the way they live now? How would they live with and treat the older adults of their generations? How would they live with themselves when they become older adults?

If our teachers and parents are unsure of how to regard and respect our older adults, how would they role model it for the children?
Having seen parents, professionals, students and retirees walk through our doors as volunteers, not knowing what to say or do around residents,
I realised that there is work to be done.

a spiritual exploration
I became focused on shaping the volunteers’ experiences. The better volunteers understood our residents, the more honouring and respectful they will be, and the more authentic conversations can be. When volunteers return to their communities, they would also have a deeper respect and understanding for older adults.

“What comes to mind when you think of a nursing home?” I liked to ask new volunteers at our workshops. So often, I get responses like “sick people”, “bored” or “watching TV”. Children are painfully honest with descriptions like “sad and dying” or “abandoned”.
Initially, I rejected those ideas and was quick to correct them but my own interactions with residents were confirming that boredom, loneliness and loss were plaguing them.

Richard was one of the few residents whom I spoke at length with. This husband and father struggled with not being involved in his wife and children’s lives. He was sad and scared that his grandchildren would forget him. With an accident that has paralysed him from neck down, he was also unable to participate in most of our volunteer-led programmes.

He asked me, “What else can I do? Why won’t God just take me?”

I was left wondering: who are these residents beyond their physical limitations?

If the Bible tells me that God has promised us “life more abundant” (John 10:10), how does that look like for residents who are bound to the wheelchair or bed? If the Bible tells me that “though we are outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly we
are being renewed day by day”

(2 Corinthians 4:16), what does that mean for those who are sick and need a caregiver for the most basic tasks like eating or bathing

I, myself, was scared knowing that human frailty is inevitable. How would I live with myself? How would others live with me?

Because of my personal struggles, it was challenging to journey with volunteers for those answers. Without an adequate answer, volunteers can walk away believing that old age is a curse, not a privilege. They might believe that older adults are solely receivers of help and unable to live life fully. Without adequate exploring, volunteers can reduce the ageing experience to a physical one.

A courageous journey
I wanted a quick fix to this uncomfortable feeling of inadequacy and uncertainty. When I was sent for an in-house course on “Spiritual Care for the Helping Professional”, I realised that as palliative care workers, we need to start with ourselves. We need to be honest with our own fears and hopes surrounding ageing and dying.

I later signed up for a Masters of Arts in Counselling. I am nearing my graduation, but nowhere near fully comprehending the complexity of human life. The more I understand myself, the more I change as a person and the more I need to learn. That applies to the residents as well. The exciting thing is — the more I learn, the better I get at asking questions and the braver I am at exploring the unknowns with the people around me.
Being able to do that starts with being authentic. Being authentic is less of a destination, but more of a journey. It comes with being honest, paying attention to what surprises and scares me and being patient as I reflect.

Meeting these residents on a daily basis brings the questions of purpose and identity to the top of my mind. The questions that residents struggle with are actually relevant to me and to our volunteers. In fact, being with residents cuts away distractions like beauty, wealth and power. It drives us to discover our authentic selves. We get to know the person that God has intended us to be when He said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).

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