I met Noreen in January of 2002. I had just begun my role as an activity assistant in a skilled nursing home in Wisconsin.
A mere four months earlier I was in my New York apartment on the morning of September 11th, 2001. The world changed forever that day. My professional career path changed forever that day as well.
By then, I’d been in New York just over five years and had been working as a radio sports reporter and producer. My lifestyle was fast and filled with amazing moments of pro-athlete interviews, fine dining and New-York City stories.
However, by January 2002 my days were filled with calling Bingo, pushing wheelchairs and learning about Alzheimer’s disease.
I was walking down the long hallway that led to the small office area I shared with the other activity assistant. Noreen stood in the doorway of her room. Her smile was large, her posture slightly hunched, her winter white cardigan sweater hung loosely on her small frame. “Good morning dear,” she chirped.
“Hey there Noreen” I replied. “How’d you sleep?”
“Oh, just fine honey.”
It didn’t take me long to learn that Noreen was ‘everyone’s favorite’. And, it was easy to see why. She knew a little information about everyone at the nursing home. Both staff and residents alike, made it into Noreen’s mental rolodex. She was quick witted and sassy. A tough lady, with rugged skin and a head of thick white hair, always impeccably in place.
She shared a room with another woman. Their worldly possessions separated by a thin white curtain. Noreen’s mementos told her nursing home life story. She had a bowl filled with candy she’d won playing bingo on the dresser and a handmade cross from art-class on the nightstand next to some costume jewelry. She had a blanket on her single bed that looked 100 years old. Photo albums with cracked pages and a few stuffed animals, littered the small space.
Noreen was a social butterfly and a fixture in many activities I led. She was good at trivia and loved current events. By the time I met her, she’d been living in the nursing home for several years.
Although I was new to the industry, I quickly bonded with Noreen. My reporting skills came in handy as I asked her questions about her life and she shared vivid details. I was fascinated by her stories.
Often, I would visit Noreen’s room and chat with her like giddy girlfriends. She offered me candy from her bingo-bowl and I’d brush her hair as she would tell me tales from the travels she took with her husband.
In those early days, I wasn’t always welcomed by other professionals in the healthcare industry. I was shunned and dismissed by those who weren’t impressed with my radio industry credentials. I didn’t have any advanced degrees in geriatrics or fancy initials behind my name. And, therefore many times industry insiders showed little respect for my contributions.
Amazingly, none of that seemed to matter to Noreen. She had no remaining family and I enjoyed spending time with her. Luckily for me, Noreen and the other residents I served weren’t concerned with the credentials behind my name. Instead, we bonded over stories, sharing life experiences and friendship.
I asked Noreen questions about her life and she willingly shared the details as we both travelled back in time together. Noreen was more than a woman in a nursing home to me, she became a trusted confidant. In fact, my friendship with Noreen was the first of many many more to come over the next decade of my professional journey.
Each month at the nursing home, I hosted a ‘breakfast bunch’ in the activity room for a group of residents. On this day, Noreen was on the guest list however, the bacon and eggs were being served to the others and she still hadn’t arrived. It wasn’t like Noreen to miss one of my activities and just as I prepared to go check on her, she appeared in the doorway of the activity room.
Her smile was broad and slightly forced that day. She wore a navy blue cardigan sweater. She apologized for being late. I touched her shoulder, “Are you alright Noreen?”
“Well, I’m not feeling that great today honey, but I knew I had to be here this morning for you,” she smiled as her blue eyes sparkled.
My heart swelled as I pulled out a chair for Noreen to sit and join the others. She was a special friend, regardless of the multiple decades of difference in our age. I watched Noreen that morning and later would remember that she appeared to be a bit ‘off-her-game.’ Her sassy wit was a bit slow that day and her movements appeared labored.
Just over a week later, Noreen was called to eternal life. The ‘breakfast bunch’ was the last activity she participated in. Back in 2002, Noreen was the first friend I lost. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been the last.
I have spent the last years wisely, getting more credentials and advanced education in Alzheimer’s, dementia and activity programming. However, the most important lesson I’ve learned didn’t come in the classroom. The first and most valuable lesson I learned came directly from Noreen so many years ago.
Friendship, communication and understanding are amazingly healing in a non-medicinal way. Noreen accepted me. And I accepted her. We had a mutual respect for one another that transcended age and living arrangement.
Unwittingly, Noreen taught me many things that have helped to shape my professional career. Those lessons are truly an Advanced Degree.