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The kindest acts

Columnist Bill Herr taught high school mathematics and science for 32 years before serving as a volunteer and then as a staff chaplain at two nursing homes. In this series of articles, he writes about his experiences with elderly residents. He does not use the residents’ real names.

By Bill Herr

Some of the kindest acts I have ever witnessed occurred when residents in nursing homes did acts of love and kindness toward fellow residents. One example was an exchange between Harry and Jim. Harry was formerly a farmer.  He had several strokes and was paralyzed on the left side. In his wheelchair he was bent over toward that side and his arm dangled lifelessly down, his hand nearly touching the floor. He couldn’t talk, but his eyes were clear and he could focus on you when you looked at him. He came to our meetings but I never was sure if he understood the discussions.  

One summer my wife and I and our kids had just made a field of alfalfa hay. I love the sweet smell of alfalfa hay. I decided to take a leaf of it to the nursing home the next week. Many of the men residents had been raised on farms and I thought the smell of fresh-made hay would stir memories. 

At the meeting I asked the men to take deep breaths smelling the hay when I brought it near their face.  I held it to several men and then I came to Harry. When I put the hay near his face, he immediately took two or three deep breaths. It was a memorable moment because now I knew that he heard and understood everything said at the meetings.  

At one of the next meetings Harry was there and Jim was also there. Jim had owned a jewelry store in the area. He was also in a wheelchair, but he could move himself to where he wanted to go. He was outgoing, a fun person that would tease some of the men in a friendly way. I don’t remember what the discussions were about that day, but I will never forget what happened when we finished. At the end of each meeting the men that could walk would leave the meeting room. Harry was the only one that had to wait on a staff person to take him back to his room.  

As I gathered my notes, I saw Jim spin his wheelchair around and move up beside Harry’s left side. He reached down, took Harry’s hand in his and squeezed Harry’s hand, a simple act of kindness.  I didn’t know if they knew each other before, but Jim was telling Harry hello and that he mattered.  

When visitors come to a nursing home and spend time with residents, it is an act of kindness. Someone once remarked, “We die two deaths.  One is when our heart stops. The other is when no one speaks to us.”  When we speak to someone or shake their hand, we are helping them to feel valued.  When I was chaplain at Mennonite Memorial Home, I always said that visitors and staff or residents that spent time with other residents were my heroes.