The Joy and Privilege of Working with Long-Term Care Residents

By Julie Helling, BSN, RN

My life changed at age 14. I had no plans on becoming a nurse. In fact, I was entertaining the idea of becoming a music teacher. Then, my grandfather came to live with us when I was in the 8th grade. I didn’t know him very well because he lived six hours away and we didn’t visit him very often. Grandpa—unbeknownst to me at the time—had been diagnosed with lung cancer. My parents didn’t want him to be so far away, so they brought him to our house. I was the first one home in the afternoons after school. I would get off the bus, arrive home, and play the piano before anyone else got home. It was my quiet time. Grandpa and I didn’t speak much. I really had no idea what to say to him. But apparently, he enjoyed the music.

As he got sicker and weaker, I would help him with his personal cares. Not really what I wanted to do at that age, but it was helping him and helping my mom. Eventually he was placed in the nursing home in town. We would visit him every evening. And although I didn’t spend a lot of time with Grandpa, I became friends with the two ladies across the hall from him. And my life changed.

As only a 14-year-old can, I was saddened and upset at what I perceived was an injustice in elder care. From my perspective, no one visited the residents; their world was sterile and colorless; all they did was sit and wait for death. I vowed to change the world! I would pass laws to improve nursing home life for these wonderful people. My life as a nurse began.

I’ve now been a nurse for 36 years. I didn’t get to Washington, D.C. to change any laws and I don’t think I’ve really changed the whole world, but I hope I’ve changed the lives of those in my corner of it. Music continues to be a great outlet for me. Because of COVID-19 and visitor restrictions, I have been helping with activities by providing piano music once a week for our elders. Their smiles are wonderful; but when they start singing along – that is when I find my happiness.

For the past 30 years, my nursing life has been in long-term care nursing. I have been in every position except Administrator. I truly believe that long-term care is one of the most challenging, trying, frustrating, and rewarding areas of nursing. Our elders provide us with fascinating insights into history, give us lessons on how to deal with adversity, and present us with healthcare challenges every day. They allow us into the most intimate aspects of life and death. We have at our fingertips a resource of love and knowledge unique in the world. Those of us who are privileged to work with the elderly are given these gifts every day by exceptional people. We only have to be willing to learn. I plan on staying in long-term care for the remainder of my career. I hope I make as much of a difference in my residents’ lives as they do in mine. 

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