How I Learned To Speak Fluent Geezer

These days when college students come home and seek out summer jobs, there’s a good chance that they’ll find themselves doing what has become the Main Task Of The Day, without which life as we know it would cease to exist: Data Entry.

Tippity-tap-tippity-tap. It has not always been that way, though.

In the summers following my freshman and sophomore years of college, I worked as an orderly at a nursing home in Rocky Mount, Virginia. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that they would hire a skinny, inexperienced 19-year-old kid for a job that involved providing direct patient care to a very sick and fragile population. But considering how difficult, and sometimes dirty, the work was, I suppose they may have been desperate enough to hire just about anybody.

I may have had a day or two where I followed someone around and learned the tricks of the trade, but very quickly I was in sole charge of getting a group of 7-10 residents up each morning and preparing them for their day, even if that day consisted merely of watching TV and drooling on their napkin in the dining hall.

For the more self-sufficient who could take care of themselves easily, that might mean merely stopping by their room to make sure they were okay and had everything they needed. For the bed bound or more mentally challenged, though, it meant getting them up, showered, dressed, feeding them breakfast from their trays and eventually getting them into their wheelchairs or walkers and to their favorite perch before family members and visitors started to arrive.

And then you had to watch them like a hawk. If family members arrived to visit and one of them had soiled themselves while you were off taking care of another resident, there was usually hell to pay. So you got in a habit of checking them regularly, employing the “sniff test” and other more tactile measures to ensure that they were clean, and if they weren’t, whisking them back to the room for a quick change that would make your average NASCAR pit crew green with envy. And by the way, this was in the days before the large adult diapers (eg Depends) came along.

Or worse yet, if a family member arrived and Granny, in an Alzheimer’s-induced stupor, had “decided” to blow the joint, then woe be unto you. I can remember more than one frantic “search and rescue” mission mounted on the grounds of the nursing home that eventually spilled into the surrounding streets of Rocky Mount.

I quickly learned that if you wanted a break from the get ’em up, clean ’em, feed ’em, change ’em grind, that you could drive the van and take patients to their doctor appointments, many of them all the way in Roanoke. With many of the doctors running behind schedule, it was easy to blow a whole day that way if you played your cards right. I can remember sitting there in the waiting rooms, reading magazines and thinking that I was glad that I wasn’t up to my elbows in, well, you know, like I usually was. Needless to say, I volunteered to drive the van with great frequency.

I also learned some very important lessons on those trips. One day, I had just finished loading Mrs. M into the van after her ophthalmology appointment. I started up the van and headed up a pretty steep hill when I heard a little squeal. I looked into the rear view mirror and saw Mrs. M, her eyes as wide as saucers, starting to roll toward the back of the van. For an instant, I had a vision of one of those Barbara Streisand farce movies with Mrs. M rolling backwards through the streets of Roanoke, barely missing cars, pedestrians and workers carrying large, plate glass windows, with me in hot pursuit.

Although I had forgotten to lock down the wheels on her wheelchair, fortunately I had remembered to close the back door well enough. To this day, although the floor to my office is perfectly level, I always reach down and lock the wheels on a patient’s wheelchair when I do an exam. There are some lessons learned that stick with you for a lifetime.

I discovered anew in those two summers how cruelly ironic life can be, how you can come into this world, helpless and fragile, and after a few decades of competence and self-sufficiency, how you can go out the same way you came in. It was humbling, backbreaking work that often left me mentally and physically drained at the end of the day.

But it was good for me. I learned that, like Professor Pausch says, no job was beneath me. It may me realize that all my pat answers fell way short of explaining life’s conundrums. It made me more patient and empathetic. It made me realize that I too would probably someday break down, grasping for whatever shred of dignity I could salvage, hoping that there would be a kind person nearby to help break my fall. That’s not something that 19-year-olds typically spend much time thinking about, but they probably should–at least a little.

And it was there at the nursing home that I learned to speak fluent Geezer. I joke about this, that someday I’m going to be on an Airplane (just like the movie) and the flight attendant will be having a difficult time understanding the octogenarian in Row 10 Seat C and she’s going to get on the intercom and ask, “Does anyone here speak Geezer?”

I’ll raise my hand confidently, just like Barbara Billingsley, and declare, “Excuse me, but I speak Geezer.”

When you speak Geezer, you speak slowly, enunciating each syllable clearly and in a low to midrange tone which is the frequency that the elderly hear best. You keep things as simple as possible as you attempt to explain complicated conditions to them. Mostly, they want to know, “Am I going blind?” or “Am I going to die?”

You listen at least as much, and usually more, as you talk. Although they may not remember your name from the beginning of the encounter when you first introduced yourself, they will remember wonderful stories from the distant past, many of them chock full of pearls of wisdom, and sometimes if time permits, I like to just sit and let them talk away.

But I think the most important thing about speaking Geezer is being able to offer up words of hope. No matter how bad the eye condition is or how fast the tumor is growing, I search hard and always try to find something good to say, some word of encouragement that will make them smile and reflect and find something in their situation that is going well and for which they can be thankful. That’s not always easy, but the effort often pays off if you try hard enough.

Many times, even something as basic as an eye exam takes on a confessional tone toward the end of one’s life. I often times feel like a priest rather than an optometrist. Many are like that man in Saving Private Ryan, asking the Large Questions such as “Was I a good man?” or “Did I make a difference?”

Do you realize the effect that all of this has had on me? How can I prance around pretending like I have all the answers, that right religious doctrine or correct politics is the end-all, be-all, when I have cleaned up human excrement and sat at the feet of such humble and wise counsel all these years?

And now, I’m much closer to “Geezer-hood” than I was at the age of 19, and as I look up and see my waning years picking up a good head of steam and starting to hurtle like a runaway wheelchair toward my plate glass window of a life, a question gnaws at my mind:

When they arrive, will anyone be able to speak Geezer to me?

  1. Hal

    I’ll speak geezer with you. Hopefully we’ll be able to hear each other. Great post. You have some very practical advice on communication here. I may have to make this mandatory reading for our entering students this quarter.

    When I was young I spent many a day cleaning manure out of the stalls in the barn on my grandfather’s farm. I thought that was a dirty job, but I would rather do that than change a dirty geezer diaper any day.

    Hey, I was at a wedding yesterday. The best man just finished his freshman year at Alabama in the honors program. I wondered if he knew #1. But, since I could only remember his Ocular Fusion nickname I didn’t ask him if he knew a guy named “#1 son.” Ask #1 if he knows a guy named Ian Sams.

  2. Mike the Eyeguy

    A decent scenario would have you, me, Eyegal and A. rocking together on the front porch of the old folks’ home. The four of us would absolutely terrorize the place.

    I’ll ask Number One if he knows Ian.

  3. Brady

    And to think, just tonight, Wife and I were thinking about which home we’d go to. We spend time with retired folks, and I’m amazed at what I don’t know when I’m around them.

    When I’m 85 and in a wheel chair, don’t lock my wheels, and don’t close the rear door too tight. I want to go out with a squeal.

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    Brady, when you’re 85, I’ll be, what, 82?

    If I’m able, I’ll park the van on the steepest hill I can find and give you a big shove. Wheeee!

  5. mmlace

    Wonderful post, Dr. Eyeguy, thanks for sharing.

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