In another life, I was a geriatric social worker, an executive director for assisted living and then as I excelled in my career, a hospice administrator. I have always had a fondness for the elderly. I have always been drawn to them. And, I have never been afraid of death. I see it as natural progression in the cycle of life. It’s one thing we all have in common and something we only get a single chance to do right. Providing quality hospice care is one way to help a patient and their family through that journey.
Before her own death, my mother used to say that I am an “old soul”. I don’t really know if this is true. The path I chose suited me and even though my career was incredibly stressful and sometimes sad, it was always interesting and surprisingly rewarding. I had the privilege to know many interesting people and I’d like to introduce you to one of them now.
His name was Harold.
Harold was a short, small framed, frail gentleman who came to live on the Alzheimer’s floor of the nursing home where I first started my career as a young social worker. He seemed so old to me. He was 90. I was 23. He was bald and boney. He couldn’t walk. He never spoke but he often smiled and looked unusually peaceful for an Alzheimer’s patient.
Harold didn’t have much family, only a nephew. He visited once a week and always made sure his uncle had nice clothing. Harold wore pressed, dry cleaned slacks with white button down shirts under brightly colored cotton cardigan sweaters. He was the best dressed resident of the Alzheimer’s floor. Maybe that’s why he was always smiling.
Harold was adorable. Even though staff aren’t supposed to have favorites, sometimes it can’t be helped. It happens and Harold was one of them. His easy nature made him a pleasure to care for. We all loved Harold but because he didn’t have much family and because he didn’t speak, we didn’t know that much about him. We wondered what, if anything, was going on in that shiny bald head.
It seemed Harold liked to be around other people. This was when he smiled the most. So, every day after getting him smartly dressed in his perfectly pressed pants, the nursing staff would place him in a recliner chair near the elevator so he could watch people come and go. Everyone who came onto the floor would greet him. “Hey Harold.” “Hi Harold.” “How are you today Harold?” “Looking good Harold.” And to each of these greetings, came a big, wordless, gleaming white, dentured smile.
Day after day, staff would sit and talk with Harold. They would talk to him about the news, the weather, the gossip of the day and Harold would tilt his head and simply smile. Since his arrival at the nursing home and for over a year, Harold sat quietly, smiled and said nothing.
On a routine day, staff scattered and hurried with daily chores, changing sheets, making beds, giving medications, patients aimlessly wandering the halls, “You Are My Sunshine” playing from the sun room for the few residents able to sit long enough to enjoy the music, Harold spoke.
Harold didn’t just speak exactly, Harold bellowed. Harold’s voice rang out. He shouted, “I believe in ice cream”. The staff all stopped in their tracks, looking about to figure out who’s unfamiliar voice they heard. Much to everyone’s surprise it was Harold. “I believe in ice cream.” “I believe in ice cream.”, “I believe in ice cream.”, “I believe in ice cream.” He joyfully called out over and over again. “I believe in ice cream.” “I believe in ice cream.” “I believe in ice cream.”
Anxious to please him several of the nursing staff ran to the kitchenette and pulled ice cream cups out of the freezer to bring to Harold. The nurse who got to him first, pulled up a chair and fed him chocolate ice cream from a shiny metal spoon.
Harold beamed, grinning ear to ear as melting chocolate dripped from his lips.
After that day, Harold enjoyed a lot ice cream. Day after day Harold sat neatly dressed near the elevator and greeted everyone with his beautiful bald head and endearing smile but he never uttered another word.
About a year after telling the world what he believed in, Harold died peacefully in his sleep with that trademark smile on his face and nursing staff all around him.
Twenty years later, I still think about Harold and when I do, I also think about how much better the world would be if we all believed in the simple sweet things in life.