Back when I was a young reporter working for the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., I was assigned to cover a Catholic Charities workshop where participants had to try to understand the physical limitations of the people they served by experiencing -- as best they could -- those disabilities in a practical way.
In order to better explain the program, I decided that I, too, would see what it felt like to experience in the most minimal way a specific physical challenge. I opted to spend part of my day in a wheelchair and part of my day with a hearing impairment. The results of the experiment were profound. Twenty-five years later, I remember quite clearly my struggles trying to get into a bathroom in a wheelchair when the door was swinging the wrong way, or reaching for a faucet that was just beyond my grasp. I remember trying to decipher what someone was saying on the specially designed recording that mimicked the way things would sound to someone with severely limited hearing. It was a great program because it took was would otherwise just be a book lesson and turned it into a life lesson.
In today's New York Times, there's an interesting story about a new program that places medical students in nursing homes full time. They receive a "diagnosis" and then live within that parameters of the illness or disability -- even if it means eating pureed food or having assistance when using a bathroom or staying in a wheelchair all day every day.
Kristen Murphy, 38, took part in the program and lived for ten days at a nursing home. Here's part of her story from the New York Times:
"Like many medical students, Ms. Murphy was scared of nursing homes. The feeling began when, as a young adult, she visited her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease.
“'I think nursing homes are scary,' she said, 'but I don’t think you can be a good doctor if you’re scared of the place where a lot of your patients live.'
"The first few days, which included filling out paperwork, undergoing a full-body mole and sore check, eating pureed foods and being raised out of bed with a lift, did nothing to validate her decision. When she wedged her wheelchair into a corner and could not get out, she cried in frustration.
“'All I wanted to do was shut my door and stay in here,' said Ms. Murphy, whose 'diagnosis' was a mild stroke that affected her right side, difficulty swallowing and chronic lung disease. 'But I understood I had to go out.'”
"Not everyone does. Some patients want to talk for hours, while others act out, like a woman who pinched Ms. Murphy as hard as she could. Many sit in the hallway by the nurse’s station each day because it is a hub of activity. Emotions run high.
"Ms. Murphy said she soon learned that many patients cried because they knew that they would most likely never live anywhere else, or because they missed family and their old life.
"'At times I felt really lonely and got depressed,' she said. 'Sometimes it was an emotional roller coaster, up and down, up and do.'"
But, by the end of her stay, the program did what it was intended to do. It showed Murphy that she was, indeed, well suited to the career she chose:
“'When I came in, I was worried about working with older folks because I was afraid I wouldn’t be good at it,' Ms. Murphy said. 'Now, if anything, I’m worried I’ll love them too much and it will really hurt to work with folks at the end of their lives.'”
These are the kinds of programs that can make a real difference, especially in understanding the needs the elderly -- and appreciating the wisdom of the elderly, something that is too often forgotten in our youth-obsessed culture. Let's hope this is the beginning of a trend.
To read the full story, click HERE.