Afternoons With Sister Mary: The Life Lessons A Nursing Home Taught Me
What do a college student and an 80-year-old nun have in common? More than you’d think.
When I started visiting Sister Mary* with a friend this fall, things were a little awkward. I had no idea what we were going to talk about for an hour a week for an entire school year. After all, weren’t our lives polar opposites?
I quickly realized that couldn’t be further from the truth. We were both experiencing difficult, transitional periods in our lives, and apprehensive about the future. Also, as my friend Meredith likes to point out, dorm life and nursing home life are pretty similar (minus the RAs, parties, and communal bathrooms of course).
Despite my reservations, we quickly became friends and fell into a routine. She’d faithfully respond “Old as dirt” when asked how she was feeling, then contradict that by refusing to participate in activities with fellow residents when we visited, explaining “Bingo is for old people. Not young girls like us!”
As our relationship grew, I realized that it had gone far beyond “volunteering,” and I was getting just as much out of it, if not more than she was.
Over our year together, here’s what I learned:
APPRECIATE THE POINT YOU’RE AT IN LIFE
Whether you’re having the time of your life in college, or struggling with the uncertainty of the future (like me), appreciate that there’s still so much possibility. At this age, our lives are just beginning, and while the unknown can be scary, it’s also thrilling. Sister Mary taught me to appreciate this through her constant jealousy over it. She often complained that her best days were behind her. Although four years of college is a long time, she will be stuck in a nursing home for the rest of her life. If that doesn’t put things in perspective, I don’t know what will.
PEOPLE ARE NOT ALWAYS WHAT THEY SEEM
When you think of an 80-year-old nun, what comes to mind? Probably not a sassy, rebellious woman who proudly admits she used to get away with “naughty things” in her youth. Try to keep an open mind, you never know who might surprise you.
LETTING GO OF EXPECTATIONS IS ESSENTIAL TO NEW EXPERIENCES
Before I started visiting Sister Mary, I was convinced that volunteering meant helping another person and seeing a clear, concrete outcome–like making lunches at a soup kitchen or tutoring kids in math. Had I kept this expectation, I probably would’ve never been open to everything Sister Mary had to offer me. I had to let go of what I thought our relationship should be (me helping her) in order for it to truly grow into something real.
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE HEALING POWER OF FRIENDSHIP
Sister Mary helped me learn that sometimes, people just need someone to talk to, and accept them for who they are. Try to be open to new relationships, even if you don’t think you’re compatible with someone. Genuinely ask people how they’re doing, and listen when they tell you. Simple gestures of friendship can go a long, long way.
*Name has been changed for her privacy