When I first moved to New York City almost three years ago, I was lonely. I was looking for a job and was used to 60+ hour workweeks. Going from constantly working (I never used to take vacationsI need to be busy) to simply emailing resumes in the deafening quiet of my new apartment, left me feeling isolated and depressed. I needed friends; I needed action. So I looked up a local nursing home, picked up the phone, and announced, “I need a grandparent.” Adopting a grandma may not have been the obvious choice for a woman in her 20s, but after growing up around my grandmothers, I’ve always said the elderly are my peer groupspending time with older folks feels like coming home, and I desperately needed a touch of home.
I dutifully attended the volunteer orientationthe only other people there were two reluctant teenagers fulfilling community service requirementsand the following Sunday, I headed out to meet my new grandmother, Marie. I’d been told that she was 85-years old, didn’t have any remaining family or friends, and in the three years she’d lived at the nursing home, had never had a single visitor. I was nervous about running out of things to talk about with her during the first meeting, so I’d spent the morning memorizing the sheet I’d been given at the orientation on good conversation starters: “What’s your favorite color?” Check. “Do you like to read?” Got it. “What’s your favorite movie?” No problem. I took the elevator to the 4th floor and found Marie, decked out in what I would later learn was her favorite pink cardigan, freshly washed hair (turns out she’d asked the nursing assistant to help her look good for our visit), and settled into her wheelchair awaiting my arrival. I sat on the metal folding chair next to her, took a deep breath, and said, “What’s your favorite TV show?” (Yes, okay, I know I messed up the movie questionI was nervous!). She looked at me innocently (picture Betty White) and said, “Ohh, I really like that Sex and the Citygirls these day are so stylish! How about painting my nails?” We were off the conversation starter sheet from then on.
Three years and countless M&Ms and cupcakes later (as Marie likes to say, “If you make it to 85, you get to eat whatever you want.” I have to agree), if it’s a Sunday afternoon, you’ll find me hanging out with my adopted grandmother. Since moving to New York, I’ve made friends my own age and frequently find myself busier than even I’d like to be, which means I sometimes wish I didn’t have the constant weekend commitment. But then I picture the woman who’s always waiting for her son at the elevator whenever I comea son who never shows. I imagine the thousands of nursing home residents across the country who never have visitors, never have anyone to celebrate birthdays or holidays with, never have anyone to simply talk to. It’s not Marie who’s the lucky one to have a faithful visitor; I’mthe fortunate one. I get to see what an impact an hour or two a week can have on someone else. Not only do I have an excuse to eat junk food and spend time gossiping with a delightful elderly woman, but I get to help take away someone else’s loneliness, too. Just like how Marie took away mine.
If you’re interested in adopting a grandparent, call your local nursing home and ask about volunteer programs, or search for opportunities at Idealist.org or VolunteerMatch.com . Your own Marie could be out there waiting.