Making Friends in the Strangest of Situations

Human connections are always possible. Be creative.

Posted Mar 20, 2020

I have just spent three and a half weeks in a nursing and rehab center for a fractured right foot and a sprained left ankle as well as a post-surgical left knee. I was there, obviously, because I didn’t have a leg to stand on!

Right before I entered the “Wellness Center” I received a PR release stating that a new study shows seniors are contracting STD’s nationally at historic levels, seeing a 107.3% increase from 2014-2018, the most of any age group. Regardless of what they are renamed, the chief demographic for nursing homes are seniors. “This should be interesting,” I thought to myself.

I knew I would be there for several weeks. While I was not looking for a friend close enough to exchange an STD, it would be nice to meet someone with whom I might pass the time.

The center was a large one-story building set by the side of a bridge that crossed a boating canal. Rooms held two or three beds occupied by 2 or 3 same-sex patients ranging from those who were basically healthy but recuperating from an injury or operation and others “warehoused” with dementia or other permanent disabilities. There were Asians of all varieties, Latinos, African Americans, and Caucasians, mostly elderly. There was a large social room with musical performers, dining tables, a view over the water available to those more mobile than I. The set-up for making a friend with whom to pass the time didn’t seem too promising. A roommate seemed my best shot.

My first roommate was an elderly woman (I think!) hooked to some sort of breathing machine that made such terrible noises, or she did, that I was in a perpetual state of panic that she was choking to death. I asked to have my room changed.

My second room held a comatose old woman whose son was “so devoted” that he visited her every day, twice a day. His first visit every day was from 5 AM to 9  during which he turned on the room lights and a small TV, loudly. His second visit was evening 8 to about midnight. Same conditions. These 4-hour visits were spent trying to coax the old woman to eat, in a very loud voice with an angry tenor. Rather than being devoted I was sure he was paying her back for her bad mothering. I felt that neither of us deserved this and I complained to the Director.

My third roommate was described as “a lovely young African American girl.” I should have learned that their guests were seldom as advertised. Yes, she was brown-skinned but there, accuracy stopped. She was in her late 40’s (young by nursing home standards), but that was about it. She was developmentally disabled, had anger issues, and was given to screaming rages. Fortunately, none of them was directed at me.

There was an Asian man who wandered the halls yelling in a dialect no one was able to decipher. There was an old woman who sat in the hallway in her wheelchair pinching the bottoms of passersby, and another old man who just yelled in general but always with a devilish grin. Not likely candidates for interesting conversation, let alone friendship. Ah, the staff then, overworked though they might be.

The nurses and Certified Nurses’ Aides were an astonishing variety. I asked each about themselves (the best way in the world to make friends) and discovered women from the Philippines, Mexico, Ethiopia, Russia, China, Vietnam, India, Tibet, Columbia, Mongolia and various parts of the United States.  hile I never made close friends with any of these overworked people I did have my favorites who always seemed to make time to talk with me – about where they came from, why they chose this work, the circumstances of their life. No matter how busy, most people are eager to talk about themself to an interested listener.

No passing of any STDs did I see, but these on-the-fly friendships did more than help me pass the time, they taught me a great deal about why anyone would take such a difficult and, I assumed, grievously underpaid job. How to make friends in any situation: talk to someone and ask them about their life. Then listen.