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Nursing homeangels

Published January 18. 2014 09:00AM

I've never met Ruth Ann but we regard her as part of our family. She is our nursing home angel, the likes of which we seldom see.

When my mother-in-law was 91, she had hip surgery and recovered nicely. But she could no longer drive to the store or do certain tasks at home.

She lives in Danville in a retirement village run by nuns who help residents however they can. A nun told Ruth Ann my mother-in-law needed a bit of help to stay in her home and she stepped in to provide that help.

Two years ago my mother-in-law decided the time was right for her to move to a nursing home that is part of her development.

Her room is comfortably furnished with her personal things to make it as homey as possible. But although it is one of the nicest nursing homes we've ever seen, it lacks one thing my mother-in-law needs family.

We are all far away and I am clear across the country. We gave my mother-in-law a special phone with big numbers and speed dial set with our numbers and we call often.

My daughter Andrea calls her grandmother every day and spends a day on the road to visit once a month. But sometimes someone needs to step in to help my mother-in-law when family can't be there.

Enter the angel named Ruth Ann. For the past two years, she visits every single day to help my mother-in-law. Sometimes that help means the simple act of getting an extra blanket when my mother-in-law is cold.

A few weeks ago it meant stepping in to save my mother-in-law's life when inappropriate sleep medication turned a remarkably keen-witted woman into a limp vegetable who seemed close to death.

Thanks to Ruth's Ann vigilance, we were able to stop the potent pill and my mother-in-law was back to normal. Nurses took one look at the medication a doctor prescribed for her and called it "inappropriate for someone her age."

But we never would have know without the nursing home angel who visits everyday.

Here are two amazing things about Ruth Ann. While she is "a perfect stranger" to us, she functions like family. And the most remarkable thing about her is that she is no spring chicken to be doing all that. We were told she is close to 80. What an amazing woman.

Nursing home angels are badly needed everywhere, but they are few and far in between.

If you really want to do something extraordinary, visit someone in a nursing home. You don't have to know them. Just say you're stopping by to say "Hi." They will be ever so grateful for the company.

"Patients just lay there all day being lonely. They appreciate any human contact," says another woman who tries to be a nursing home angel to some of these lonely people.

In our society, we don't give much notice to elderly people. And we certainly don't like to even visit a nursing home when we have to.

It takes a very special person to have a caring heart big enough to become a nursing home angel.

Some of my friends like to sing and play musical instruments. While one is a talented musician and songwriter, the others admit they are not very good. But they found a perfect venue for them to entertain area nursing homes.

"You don't have to be all that good to make others happy. I get so uplifted when I see the smiles on people's faces when we entertain," said one woman.

With no musical talent, one woman plays a special washboard her husband made. What a hit she is wherever she plays at nursing homes.

She noted that some church groups visit nursing homes at Christmas but for the rest of the year, no one makes an effort to go there.

Well, that's not quite true. I'll amend "no one" to "few" because I do know some people who are nursing home angels.

One very unlikely angel is a 62-year-old man who retired early from a lucrative career and moved to Florida.

"For a while, I played golf, but how much golf can one person play? I wanted to do something meaningful," he says.

He got the idea to visit nursing homes when he entertained there with his clown group. "I saw how lonely people were and how much they appreciated a little attention," he says.

He became a nursing home book angel, visiting patients and handing out books to read. He says he and his wife are avid readers and they buy a lot of books. Plus, when others learn what he is doing, they donate books to him.

"I try to match the book to what I know the patient likes. But that's not as important to most patients who simply want someone to visit," he says.

"The best thing you can do for someone in a nursing home is to listen to them. That's what they crave someone to listen," he says.

He also says he discovered everyone has a story to tell. "There are some pretty amazing people and it's interesting to hear their stories," he says.

Yes, there are angels among us. And nursing home angels are one of the most special kind.

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