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Shabbat at the Nursing Home

An exceptional mother-daughter volunteer team

Four years ago, Carole Jo Dalton’s dear friend (and once-nanny to Carole’s daughter Rachel) entered a Methodist nursing home in New York. Eleanor Banks, Methodist herself, was 62, on kidney dialysis and blind. The nursing home was dull, Eleanor explained to Carole, so she spent a lot of time “covering the bases” at different worship services: Bible study on Thursdays, Methodist services on Sunday mornings, Catholic mass on Sunday afternoons, and Jewish Sabbath services on Friday afternoons. “Shabbat services are really nice,” Eleanor told Carole and 10-year-old Rachel. “A different minister leads us every week. You should come.” The nursing home sponsored a generic Christian pastoral care internship program, so rotating student-ministers led all religious services—Christian and not.

Carole, a high school English teacher, and Rachel attended four Shabbat services before they realized that they had backed themselves, inadvertently, into taking over. At the first service, though student-pastor Jack was well-meaning, Carole remembers that “he sang songs that belonged in pre-school: I love God; God loves me.’ When he asked residents, as part of his sermon, to look around the room and see ‘the proofs of God’s love,’ it was painful—given the weight of loneliness, fear and depression in the room.”

“Pastor Jack ended the service by thanking God in the name of his son, Jesus,” remembers Carole, “and then he clapped his hand over his mouth. I didn’t have the heart to tell my Methodist friend Eleanor that what we’d just sat through was not a Shabbat service.”

At the end of that first Friday service, Rachel, prodded by her mother, chanted the Hebrew blessings over wine, challah and candles. “The sight and sound of this young girl, proficient in Hebrew, with a sweet voice, struck a responsive chord in the women—all of whom were Jewish but my friend Eleanor. When Rachel suggested shyly that she could come back the next week and bring piano music, everyone applauded,” says Carole. “Rachel was a star.”

The second week, Carole and Rachel upped their participation. Though Sister Florence crossed herself and whispered a quick Hail Mary, Carol sang “Sholom Aleichem” and Rachel played “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen” on the piano. The third week saw kindly Pastor Jeff encouraging the women to “share” their week—but his urging (to have them take over what he called “ownership of the service”) fell on deaf ears. Only one woman ‘shared.’ “The same, the same, and more of the same,” she told Pastor Jeff tartly about her week.

Carole, however, had spontaneously stopped at her neighborhood bakery to buy challahs and cake for the residents (“I go to a better bakery than the nursing home does,” she explains) and she found herself—in response to one highly opinionated resident—” appointing this resident as our official Challah Maven. I said, ‘So tell us, oh Challah Maven—we won’t touch this challah until it gets your approval: How is it? Too dry, too eggy, moist, good?’ It became a little ritual that we did for almost four years—until our Challah Maven died.”

On the fourth watershed Shabbat, student-pastor Jack (of Week One) led a failed service of responsive readings. Sylvia and Eleanor, both blind, necessarily “passed” on reading from the printed sheets. Lenore, with only one arm, tried to, but could not, hold the printed sheet while simultaneously taking her reading glasses on and off. Adele didn’t have the strength to hold handouts at all. Irene’s fingers were fused, and though she could hold sheets, she couldn’t lift them to within eyesight. Annie couldn’t speak. Sara was too steeped in her own anxiety to respond. That left Gazelle and the visitors.

“That week Rachel and I chanted a few prayers, and I shared a little story that I’d happened to read that morning in the Jewish Week,” says Carole. “Rachel sang the kiddush and played Yiddish songs on the piano. Rachel and I looked at each other—we realized we were at a crossroads.”

Rachel, then 10 years old, remembers driving home with her mother after that service: “In the car, my mom said, ‘If we start to lead Shabbat services, this isn’t just a one week thing. We have to be committed to come here every Friday. This nursing home is not one of the greatest places in the world,’ my mom said, ‘but the people are nice people, there’s nothing wrong with them.’ I decided I was ready to take on this challenge.”

That was 1991, and Rachel and her mother have spent every Friday afternoon with their “congregation” since. (The clergy-interns have been relegated to wheeling residents to and from the chapel.) One year Rachel’s sister, Danna Kalkstein, home from college, also participated in leading nursing home Shabbat services weekly. The family taught songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. They peppered the service with folk tales, teachings from Jewish history, and tidbits from whatever material they happened to be reading that week.

Says Carole, “Danna gave the congregation a repertoire of songs, and she delivered little sermons. I talk about my grandmother, my relatives. I bring articles or stories. We talk about what it’s like to be women. I’ve read from The Big Book of Jewish Humor, from the Bible, from stories by American Jewish authors. I look at the Jewish newspaper’s comments about the weekly Torah portion. I talk in such a way that people can interrupt me to tell their own stories. We’ve done memorial services, and discussed particular Jewish prayers. People here make friends, just like they did at other stages of their lives. You lose a friend, it’s terrible. I don’t do eulogies very well because I cry too much, like when Irene died, but I talk about what I know. I free associate.

“This last week, I read a .segment of Dickens’ Great Expectations, where Pip visits the Aged Parent. On Chanukah we come with Rachel’s friends, menorahs for each person and jelly doughnuts. The little chapel fills up with the exuberance and light of young people. By now, this is my Shabbos. God forbid, if anything happened to Eleanor I would .still come here.”

As Rachel approached 13—though the Dalton family belongs to a synagogue—she decided to have her bat mitzvah at the nursing home. “The logical place to have it was here, not at our synagogue,” explains Rachel, “because this is my religious community. I knew my bat mitzvah would be better here than at my shul because here everyone would come especially for me. Last year, whenever I was out of the room, the women would start planning. Pastor Joe sent out invitations to people who live here, and he also set up a special room for us for the event. The women secretly pitched in for a gift, a gold necklace with an “R.” On my bat mitzvah day, all the women dressed up fancy with makeup and their hair specially done. One man said, ‘If only I had thought, I’d have put on a tie. You get out of the habit of thinking around here.’ “

Carole is modest in her appraisal of her parenting priorities, seemingly oblivious to the fact that not every mother and daughter embark on four-year (and still counting) mitzvah projects. “I’ve always told my daughters that I have bright, healthy children. I’ve said to them, ‘Your intelligence and whole being you got from God. What you do with this is what you give back to God.’ I’ve told them this their whole life. We’re not put on earth just to take. With Eleanor I feel that she loved my child and took good care of her, and because of this I was able to earn a living as I had to do. So when Eleanor became needy and helpless, I couldn’t just walk away from her. It was pay-back time. When people do for me, I feel. Eleanor was like a second grandmother to Rachel. She loves Rachel. When someone is willing to immerse themselves in your child’s life, you don’t just walk away when they need help.

“Fridays are definitely a time for me and Rachel to talk,” Carole continues, “a time to feel how nice it is to be in a female environment, to see that females have a lot in common. Rachel gets angry at things she sees at the nursing home—this one has to go to the toilet; this one is cold. She’s learned to be assertive and nice at the same time, which is hard for many females. There’s a lot of rescuing you do in nursing homes. A blind woman wheeled herself into a wall last time we were there. Rachel went over to her immediately: ‘I’m going to take you to your room, okay?’

“When you visit a nursing home often enough, you realize that these are just people—their speech is slurred, they’re crippled, they need help, but they used to be someone’s wife, someone’s mother, they had jobs, they were competent. They never planned to end up this way, any more than I plan to end up this way. The first time you see people whose bones are so thin and fragile, or fused fingers, or legs that are distorted—it’s shocking and upsetting. You don’t know exactly what to do. You’re afraid the people will break. You don’t know your own boundaries. Then you discover, like Rachel and Danna and I did, that these are people who want you to kiss them and hug them and talk to them.”

Rachel, at 14, has her own sense of what four years of Shabbat at the nursing home has meant to her. “This is what I look forward to every Friday. It’s like, Monday—school; Tuesday—school; Wednesday—school; Friday—nursing home. It’s not a chore, it’s enjoyment. This is a really special thing I do with my mother. Not only are we doing something together, but we’re helping other people. I have all these dreams for when I grow up,” Rachel muses, “but if I stay in New York, I’d love to keep going to the nursing home. There’s no reason to stop.

“The whole point is that our nursing home services on Shabbat create a real Jewish community,” Rachel concludes. “Shabbat is a day that’s different from all other days—we think about different things, set aside special things to do. For me, visiting the nursing home is one of those special things—set aside especially for Shabbat.”

Raise Finches? Yodel? Creative Volunteering

by Karen Bekker

When we think about volunteering in nursing homes, most of us imagine long, boring hours of Bingo and checkers. But there are lots of original, creative and fun ways to get involved.

• “Mitzvah downs” Sue and Mike Turk, also known as Sweetpea and Buttercup (or Buttercup and Parvecup, depending on the audience) began their work a few years ago in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania when Sweetpea (Sue) learned clowning through an AT&T charity group. When they moved to Short Hills, New Jersey, she began teaching clown classes to children at her synagogue. The couple began dressing themselves and their students in costumes from Salvation Army stores and garage sales. Using their kitchen as a makeup room, they appeared in hospitals fully outfitted with big shoes, colorful wigs, and a camera that squirts water instead of taking pictures. Says Sweetpea about their work in the Daughters of Miriam nursing home, “Ifs fun to see the audiences’ faces, especially when the kids get nutty.” Buttercup agrees, saying, “We get more pleasure out of it than they do.” To learn how to “mitzvah clown” at a nursing home, call Sue and Mike at (201) 376-2885.

• Carol Hutton, the “Bird Woman of Indianapolis,” says that she was working as an office manager at a Jewish Community Center when Danny Siegel of the Ziv Tzedakah Foundation challenged her to come up with a creative tzedakah project. She was already in the business of raising zebra finches, so she put up signs asking for donations of old cages, and began bringing them to the JCC’s preschool. When she saw how much the elderly people at the JCC enjoyed the birds, she began installing them at nursing homes. She has encouraged several pre-teens who have called her for advice for bat/bar mitzvah tzedakah projects, and when they bring a bird to a homebound person or a senior citizens’ home, they go back every week to take care of the bird, and often develop a special relationship with the people they visit (as well as with the birds). “The birds are pretty and they sing beautifully,” she says, “I just would like to think that others can enjoy them as much as I do.” To learn how to “mitzvah bird,” you can get her guidelines by calling her at (317) 630- 3063.

• How to do mitzvah gardening and mitzvah manicures: Danny Siegel puts out a newsletter of innovative and unusual tzedakah ideas (for example, how to recycle your infant car seat, your hotel shampoos, and your stuffed animals). Get it from the Ziv Tzedakah Foundation, 263 Congressional Lane #708, Rockville, MD 20852. (301)468-0060.

 How to Visit a Nursing Home

1) Whomever you encounter at the nursing home, talk to them as if they were in armchairs, not wheelchairs. Imagine they’re your own grandmother or grandfather. They’ve lived long, productive lives.

2) Always carry something in your hand: a flower, a newspaper to read or show a picture from, a recipe. Try saying, “I just found this recipe. Does it sound good to you? I’m collecting recipes. Do you have any favorites?”

3) Keep in mind a “history icebreaker.” For example: “Do you remember where you were when the State of Israel was declared?”

4) Visit during good weather for two reasons. First, most visitors don’t come then (they have other things to do). Second, pleasant weather allows you to walk into the residence and say, “Anyone like to walk outside in nice spring air?” In a scenery-changed environment, conversation may be easier. (Remember: Tell staff if you take a resident out.)

5) if you’re talking with someone whose response is consistently blank, agitated or reality-challenged, ask: “Would you like me to read a story? Want to listen to the radio? Let’s take a walk together.” If you feel unable to “connect” at all, you have several options: a) pretend that what the resident is saying makes sense; b) focus on your own pleasure in the story, radio or walk; or c) tell the resident, ‘It’s been nice talking with you. I have to go now.’ [Carole Dalton’s sage advice: “if you’re plotzing, so say goodbye.”]

6) Prepare an ad lib or two. It’s always good to ask for an opinion or advice. For example: “I’m trying to decide which of these two T-shirts to give my daughter. Which color do you prefer?” or “I’ve just been thinking about a problem I’m having with my neighbor…. I wonder if you have any suggestions.”

7) Some residents crave physical contact.. The first time you visit, ask: “Is it okay if I give you a hug or hold your hand?”

8) Expect your first few visits to be difficult. Contract with yourself to visit three times before you give up—probably by then you’ll want to continue.

9) Ask the staff—the floor nurse is usually in the know—who needs visitors and on what day. Saturdays and Sundays there are usually fewer staff members around, so residents without family visitors feel even lonelier on weekends.

10) Ask the volunteer coordinator or head nurse for the name of someone in particular to visit. Request some background information on your visitee. You might mention your own interests or hobbies to find a good match. It’s okay to say, “I’m a little nervous, can someone help me through the first visit or two?”

Altruism at Fourteen

by Susan Schnur

How does four years of being a volunteer at a nursing home make its mark on a child? Rachel Dalton, 14, seems to have more than ordinary empathy.

What’s been hardest for you at the nursing home?

RACHEL: When someone dies. I love everyone there. One of the men, Henry, told me he loved me—that I was like his daughter. It was scary when he died. One time in the new wing, I was taking someone up in her wheelchair and a rolling bed went past—it was someone who had died, and the nurses were trying to back us off. I was devastated; I thought it was someone I knew. I went to Eleanor’s room to talk. ‘I’m scared,’ I said. Like when my cat died, I called Eleanor at the nursing home and I was crying. Her cat had already died. She said, ‘It’s the way of life, Rachel. He was really sick, he’s not in pain anymore.’ She said, ‘Cherish the memories’—which I remember because it was a saying I’d never heard before. She made it all right.

What’s something important that you’ve learned at the home?

RACHEL: How to be totally comfortable. One of my best friends, she’s not good with nursing homes—she doesn’t know how I can take it. But the people at the home, they’re all so great. Some women have their good days and have their bad days. I’ve been there long enough to understand this. One woman burst into sobs during Shabbat services—so I knew it was a bad day. I wanted to assure her that everything was fine. I said, ‘Drink some wine, Adele. You’ll drink it. Come on, it’s Shabbos.’

Sometimes people are just roaming the halls, not really going anywhere. I say, ‘Would you like to come into services?’ Last week a woman said, ‘I’m late, and I’m not Jewish.’ I said, ‘No big deal.” I welcomed her. My mom stopped services and introduced her and everyone and me and my sister.

What feels especially good at the nursing home?

RACHEL: It feels really good to be patient. One woman, she has one glass eye, and a problem with her vocal cords. She’s hard to understand, but I got to know her. I take her upstairs to her room after services and I stay for 15 minutes. I’m always the one, if she wants water, I get it. She shows me all the photos on her wall: her husband, her daughter, her granddaughter. I have to ask her to repeat things over and over. She nods her head and says, ‘Oh it’s so hard to understand me.’ I say, ‘Just say it again. I’ll understand. It’s not that bad.’

On some floors there’s not enough help, there are people crying out. Last week a woman wanted to go to a table a few feet away— she had pushed herself all the way from the end of the hall. I knew she wanted something, but it took me a long time to figure out what No one else had the time to do this, so I felt good. I felt really good.

Can you explain how a mitzvah works?

RACHEL: How a mitzvah works—that people give me a gift to let me help them.