Last year I hosted almost 100 foreign Fulbright scholars for their orientation into the Fulbright program and American culture. As a part of the program we organized a community service activity. After much debate in the planning process we decided to take the scholars to a nursing home. I point out that their was a debate because nursing homes are not an accepted or regular part of many other cultures. Almost a year later I ran across an incredibly eloquent and descriptive illustration of one of the scholar's experience. Her thoughts speak volumes about her culture, values and beliefs, as well as her perspectives on nursing home culture.
Poornima Sardana posted this on Facebook on July 6th, 2015 describing her experience volunteering at a nursing home:
On my second day in a country far from home, I was taken for community service.
It was a part of my orientation.
Along with fellow scholars, I found myself in the company of elders in a space they definitely would not call home.
Yes, they appeared to be comfortable, no, they did not seem happy.
I was trying hard not to force my personal conditioning and views on relationships, loneliness or love on people whose lives I had not experienced. I was trying hard not to sympathize but practice empathy, to not foolishly patronize or be annoyingly friendly. I was trying hard to just be present in the moment, but I think I just froze.
I was trying too hard.
When she saw me standing clueless, the facilitator guided me to join two ladies who did not look into my eyes, they looked into a space I could not reach. I found myself confused and incapable of initiating a conversation. I lost all presence of mind. I felt foolish and scared. I felt scared because I did not want to remind someone of anything hurtful with any statement, question or my mere presence, I was scared because I did not want to provide a glimpse of hope and then disappear, never to return. I felt foolish because I had agreed to be part of this without thinking about the process, its purpose and possible outcomes. I just came because I was told it is for the good.
I sat close to one of the ladies while the other was joined by an enthusiastic fellow who was much more active and cheerful in demeanor. I just sat quietly next to my partner. I wondered if it was my own incapacity as a person that was creating this barrier. I wondered if I would like a stranger to come and talk to me when I delve on a thought unrelated to that unsolicited visitor, a thought too far away in my mindscape to even notice a new presence.
I was surprised that she was still looking in that space. I decided to focus on her hands. I kept looking at her fingers, until I could resist no more, and touched them. She was surprised, angry at first. She kept staring at me, and then, as if we had always known each other, started speaking to me. She was thinking of me as someone related to her. She was complaining, she was hurt. She narrated past incidents that were violent and painful. There was no sequence, she would repeat a lot of instances, she would keep looking at me to see if I were listening. I just kept listening, all this while holding her hands. I had this strange fear that if I do not hold her hands, I would lose her again.
But then she was suddenly quiet , looking into a far off space. By now, I knew she thought I was her son. We sat in silence. For a while I had been so absorbed in listening to her voice that I had not noticed what was around us. Some people were dancing and singing.
The facilitator came and informed me that it is time to leave. I told my partner that I would take her leave. She had forgotten her name. She asked me if I would take her home. I felt heaviness and guilt. The facilitator intervened and said that her son would be coming to meet her soon.
I danced with a gentleman and told a lady that her nail paint was indeed beautiful. When we recollected outside this dorm, we were celebrated for having taken out time and providing joy to people.
I felt hollow.
I felt I was cheating on her, she who did not remember her name, she who had been hurt, she who had wanted to go home. I had the privilege of going into her life, borrowing her memories and listening to her at my will, I could leave when I had no answer to give. I felt I wronged her by doing so, my commitment could not be so frivolous. She did not exercise that choice of asking me to not be close to her, of leaving at her will and being in a situation she might have truly wanted. I was angry at myself for silently accepting the gratitude of the staff, I was angry at myself for having had to try so hard to just connect with a human and then abruptly leave.
Poornima Sardana is the Founder of "Friends of Kathputli Colony Delhi" A voluntary research and support initiative with street performers and artists at Kathputli Colony, Delhi, India. Currently, Poornima is a Fulbright Scholar studying Museum Studies at NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Science. She studied Design andhave a keen interest in tangible as well as intangible heritage, its preservation and growth. Poornima has been a Fellow at the Young India Fellowship Program, a Post-Graduate Fellowship in Science and Liberal Arts, worked as an illustrator and Design Consultant and was also a volunteer tour guide for children at the National Museum in Delhi, India.