LEWISTON — The fifth day at the nursing home was the breaking point for Jana Kenney.
On that day she was depressed, withdrawn, cried and called her family often. She missed her home, her independence, her old life.
Kenney, 22, was “discharged” from the Russell Park Rehabilitation and Living Center after living there from July 23-Aug. 2.
Nursing home staff treated Kenney, a University of Maine student, as if she was 85, suffering with pneumonia and recovering from a stroke, unable to use the right side of her body. She lived in a wheelchair, wore a nasal oxygen tube, ate pureed food, was toileted and bathed.
The future doctor acted as an elder to learn what it feels like to be a nursing home resident through the “Learning by Living” program offered by the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, Department of Geriatric Medicine. That’s according to Marilyn Gugliucci, director of the college’s Geriatrics Education and Research. UNE, with campuses in Biddeford and Portland, is the only medical school to have such a program, Gugliucci said.
Her stay was a life-changing experience, Kenney said.
“It’s important to understand and have some sense of compassion,” she said. “I don’t think you can have that compassion without understanding what they’re going through.”
Kenney, of Bangor, plans to graduate from UMaine in December, go to medical school and become a geriatrician. She’s worked in nursing homes since 18, and enjoys working with elders. “They have much to say about life. You have to be receptive to listening.”
Kenney didn’t think much would surprise her during her stay. She was wrong.
“I came from home that morning. All of a sudden my entire life changed,” she said.
She was wheeled into her room where she met her roommate, a 75-year-old resident. She was confused by all the staff introducing themselves, asking questions. Meanwhile Gugliucci talked to staff.
Soon Gugliucci left. “To see her leave was hard for me, she was the only familiar thing I had here,” Kenney said. “It was a culture shock.”
At dinner she was talking to residents and began to calm down. But dinner was no fun. It was pureed chop suey and broccoli. The texture was tough to get used to.
“I ate all the applesauce,” she said.
Right-handed, but without the ability to use that hand because of the pretend stroke, Kenney struggled to feed herself with her left hand.
Liquids had to be thickened to avoid choking. Drinking thickened water or coffee was like drinking hair gel, Kenney said. Drinking thickened milk wasn’t bad, it was like a milk shake.
When she becomes a doctor, Kenney said she’ll only prescribe pureed food as a last resort, saying it’s a loss to an individual’s quality of life.
“We can’t teach that,” Gugliucci said. “You have to experience it.”
Another lesson Kenney learned was that activities that residents enjoy don’t need to be dumbed down.
When she worked in nursing homes, Kenney said she offered games at easy levels so residents could do better and win.
“Here I learned that’s absolutely silly,” Kenney said. “I learned the better I did, the more the residents excelled.” They’re capable and competitive, she said.
Kenney learned how hard it is to have to wait for someone to help with daily things, such as using the bathroom, getting dressed, taking a bath and getting out of bed.
“I felt helpless. I felt like I didn’t have control over myself. I didn’t have any privacy. It was embarrassing,” she said.
During the first few days a machine lifted her from her bed to her wheelchair. “I couldn’t just take a nap, even though I was exhausted. It puts things into perspective, how much you take things for granted.”
The whole time she missed home. Those feelings peaked on Day 5 when it felt like “the walls were closing in. Being here for 10 days wasn’t easy. A lot of time I was crying, upset, had to call home,” she said.
That’s typical, said Lori Pomelow, Russell Park administrator. Staff see residents suffering with feelings of isolation and depression. They cry, stop eating. Some call family more often, others don’t have anyone to call. Most soon stop feeling so sad and embrace other residents as their new community, Pomelow said.
That happened to Kenney. She made friends with other residents who, she said, became more than friends.
“These residents are people I share a home with,” Kenney read from her journal. “I’ve only been with them only a week, yet we have shared intimate details about ourselves to each other. I didn’t have many visitors while here, many of the residents don’t get visitors either, so we rely on each other. I trust them and they trust me. These people pick me up when I am down just by being present.”
The Russell Park staff cried when they heard that, Pomelow said.
Her stay solidified that she wants to become a geriatrician, “that this is something I love and something I will be good at.”
Calling on doctors who want to experience nursing home life
Doctors or health care providers interested in learning what it’s like to live at a nursing home should contact Marilyn Gugliucci, director of geriatrics education and research, at the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.
UNE’s “Learning by Living” program allows university students and health care providers to live at a nursing home for 10 to 14 days as elder residents and are treated as such.
Jana Kenney, 22, of Bangor just finished a 10-day stay at Russell Park Rehabilitation and Living Center in Lewiston and is the 29th student to take advantage of the program, Gugliucci said.
People such as Kenney who participate are courageous, Marilyn Gugliucci, director of UNE’s Geriatrics Education and Research. “For a student to take 10 to 12 days of their summer to live in a nursing home is remarkable.”
Students don’t get academic credit for the experience. Nursing homes don’t get paid. They must offer a bed, losing between $275 to $500 a day.
“That is quite a commitment,” Gugliucci said.
The feedback facilities gain is invaluable, Russell Park Administrator Lori Pomelow said. “Our staff learned a lot about themselves.”
Gugliucci may be reached at email@example.com
— Bonnie Washuk