Dirty Vets

In my first year of nursing school, we spent time doing a rotation at the VA. Being that it was Memorial Day today, I recalled how much I enjoyed working with the veterans. Most of them were WWII vets with a few Korean War and Vietnam vets mixed in.  The WWII vets were in their 80s with their bodies slowly giving up on them.  We could see into their souls when they let us.  We had an assignment that term called “therapeutic activity”.  It was our job, as students, to try to connect with our resident (patient) and develop a therapeutic activity for them.  To do this, we had to talk with the resident and find out what makes them feel good.

Kellie’s patient wasn’t just a soldier. He was a singer.  When asked what his favorite song to sing was…he replied “Blue Moon”.  So she brought in a CD player and they sang Blue Moon every morning when he got out of bed.  It was so painful for him to move his legs that the singing was a perfect distraction.

My patient was a gardener.  I had seen raised beds outside the common room and wondered if he knew of them.  He did.  I wrote my therapeutic activity paper about my experience with him.  These experiences touched each of these gentlemen and taught me that they were MUCH MORE than guys who gave their bodies to age and disease.  These were men who put their lives at risk so that I could have the life I have now.  Spending quality time with them wasn’t enough to thank them.  I decided to continue therapeutic communication with every patient I meet, remembering how touching it was to work with these heroes.

And I would like to share my paper with you:

Feed the Soul with Fingers in the Dirt ~ Clark College School of Nursing

Planning an activity with a resident who is very busy and tires easily is no easy task. The resident I cared for was usually out at an activity or resting because he just returned from one.  I considered the issue of adding another activity to his already busy schedule. This might be a challenge. Additionally the resident has just returned from a stay in the hospital where he was treated for pneumonia. He was especially tired and weak.

I found the resident at lunch, thinking that he would be more alert and social during mealtime.  His wife had accompanied him this day.  I found this to be beneficial as she was able to participate in conversation and offer information about activities that the resident liked to do.  I approached the client by telling him that I wanted to do something fun with him.  He was a little confused by this as it seems the current nurses and caregivers don’t take the time to do therapeutic activities.  

In the end, we decided that a walk out to the garden would be an activity that he would like.  We also agreed that it would be appropriate based on his schedule and current health status.  We had to come up with an alternate plan in case it rained.  The resident decided that he would try to teach me to play poker if it rained those days.

Going outside for this resident is a big deal.  He likes to be on the move.  According to his medical record, the resident suffers from seasonal depression and uses light therapy to help treat it.  Additionally, he had been involved in planting the community garden in past years and his face lights up every time he talks about it.

The activity we planned was not very active when compared to someone who is ambulatory and does not have a compromised immune system. However, for someone getting over pneumonia, going for a walk outside can be quite draining.  The resident wanted to “go out to the point”, which was where the raised garden beds are.  There, we planned to talk about whatever he wanted to.

The activity lasted about fifteen minutes.  There was a slight wind and we agreed that a short walk would not tire him too easily.  We walked out to the point where the resident showed me the raised garden beds.  He explained what they planted where and at what time of year they did it.  I just listened to him talk about the gardening he did each year, wondering how long he had lived there and why he stopped going outside.  He stuck his fingers in the dirt and pulled some of the weeds that had grown there over the winter.

About halfway into our garden visit, another resident came out to where we were.  The residents knew each other and approached each other immediately.  They shook hands and held them there while asking how each other was doing.  They never lost eye contact. It was a very intimate and therapeutic moment watching these two vets connect like that.  I can see why the residents don’t get much of this type of interaction throughout their busy days. It amazed me to realize what moments of human connection can do. After a few minutes, the other resident left.  We toured a few more flower beds and called an end to our outing.  The resident was tired and ready for his afternoon nap.  He was thrilled to return to his room with dirty hands and did not want to wash them off when we got there. He said he liked having dirt under his fingernails to remind him of what he loves.

For future activities, I think that gardening with other residents would be a very therapeutic activity for this resident.  Unfortunately, it appears that gardening is only done during the spring and summer months.  During the winter, it might be a good idea to have a greenhouse or indoor garden.  This way, residents can get their hands in the dirt and be a part of growing life and beauty all year round.  There are small greenhouses that fit into small windowsills where someone can watch daily progress.  A community greenhouse would get residents interacting together.

At any rate, digging in the dirt and being a part of creating a living thing can be a very therapeutic activity regardless of the size of the plant or the amount of the dirt.

~February 2009


I felt honored to watch such beautiful light come out of such pain and suffering.  I will never forget the importance of human touch for this very reason.

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