Nursing Home Christmas and Matilda…by Betty Mason Arthurs
“Mrs. Arthurs, Matilda escaped during lunch, but she’s back safe and sound.” A nurse’s aide, Anne, breathlessly told me the latest escapade of one of our nursing home patients when I arrived for my evening shift. In spite of the newly installed cameras and buzzing alarms at each door, Matilda walked out into the bitter cold afternoon, wearing only her cotton dress, a thin sweater and black shoes.
I asked Anne, “How did we get her back?” However, I was thinking, “Is this the beginning of a wild Christmas season at Fairland Nursing Home? Will we be losing more confused patients as they search for their old homes and for the sons and daughters who no longer came for visits?”
All winter an icy wind blew over the Niagara Gorge and into our nursing home not far from Niagara Falls, in Lewiston, NY. In the 1970s I worked part-time. An RN and evening supervisor, my shift was from 3pm to 11pm while my husband cared for our toddler daughter and baby son.
Anne smiled. “A man who lives in the apartments ten blocks away found Matilda and brought her back. He said she reminded him of his grandmother.”
“I’m so glad she’s okay. I’m going to her room and check on her.” I waved good bye to Anne. The aides had already tucked Matilda into bed for a nap. I was grateful she had a normal blood pressure and she seemed unhurt. She asked me, “Is Sharon coming today?” How should I answer her when we all knew her daughter had died years ago?
Matilda was one of our favorite patients. In her 80s, she entertained us as she chattered nonstop about anything and nothing. In good physical shape, she prowled the halls all day, content to hug and greet strangers and each of the staff. We were her beloved family.
Patrick, our Irish gentleman, also roamed the halls and would sing us songs about Ireland and even dance a wobbly jig. A large man, he “smoked” a pipe and brightened our days as he told us tales of his childhood. We loved him too.
Nellie had suffered numerous strokes and each day we gently restrained her in a wheelchair to keep her posture upright and for her safety. She tried so hard to talk and we pretended to understand her. We parked her near the nurse’s station so she wouldn’t be alone.
Although her mind was bright and alert, Bess was one of our frail, bedridden patients. Each Sunday her grandson would gently pick her up in his arms, carry her out to his car and treat her to a ride around town. Even today, many years later, I tear up when I think of his selfless act of love for his grandmother.
All of our forty patients had interesting backgrounds and stories to tell. But the holidays were difficult. We worried that their families would not visit or bring them gifts or send a card.
Jim, a young father, we later learned, had found Matilda and taken her home to his small apartment, fixed her hot tea, enjoyed her chatter and loved seeing her with his wife and two small children. He told us, “She reminded me of my grandma. I had to help her.” Eventually he found where she belonged and brought her back to us. After that, he adopted Matilda, calling her “grandma” and came to visit her often.
In spite of all our efforts to keep the Christmas cheer going, it was a difficult season for most of our patients. But this Christmas Eve, thanks to Matilda’s crazy escape, our nursing home buzzed with excitement.
Jim, dressed in a Santa Claus suit with his wife as Mrs. Claus and his two children as elves, had special gifts for each resident. In spite of their limited income, Jim and his family had purchased sweet smelling talcum powder for each of our ladies and Old Spice aftershave for our gentlemen.
Shouting, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas,” Jim and his family paraded into each room, pulling wrapped packages out of his red cloth bag. They lovingly placed their gifts into the withered hands of each woman and man. Patients called back, “Merry Christmas.” Some said, “Thank you. God bless you!” They visited Matilda last and watched as she unwrapped her gift and in spite of her confusion, she hugged Jim and his family. “Thank you, Merry Christmas,” she said.
Like the wise men who followed a star to Bethlehem, Jim and his young family followed their hearts and with love and compassion gave gifts to the lonely folk who are often forgotten in a nursing home. I imagine Jim’s children never forgot the lesson they learned about the true meaning of Christmas. It’s in giving to others that we experience the birth of the Christ child. I know, it’s a meaningful lesson I’ve never forgotten thanks to Matilda’s escape…and a man with a huge, loving heart, Jim.