The 8-year-old Candy Striper
Updated: Apr 11
Aside from grandparents and great grandparents (most of which were pretty “hands off”), my first experience with the elderly was when I was about eight years old. My best friend lived down the block and she was 16 years old. I know, it sounds a little odd. But with me being mature for an eight year old, and her a bit immature for 16, we met somewhere in the middle.
My friend had volunteered to be a Candy Striper at a local nursing home and invited me along one day. I found the closest thing I could find in my closet to a candy striper’s uniform, a little white blouse and blue skirt with suspenders…more like a beer garden server than "nurse", but it would suffice and I was excited.
I was struck by the sterility of the nursing home…the slick, white surfaces, the smells of disinfectant and stale bodily fluids, no art or personal touches anywhere. More hospital than “home”. The patients were all quite elderly, of course. Most appeared very ill to me, or at least devoid of any joy. And though there were many of them, it was quiet. Funny thing is, I don’t recall seeing any nurses, although I am sure they were there.
All of the candy stripers seemed to enjoy ordering me around. I didn’t mind. I really wanted to help. It felt good to help. At one point, they told me to push a woman in a wheelchair into the cafeteria for lunch. They all snickered. It was only later that I found out the old woman was known to be aggressive and abusive. She would even take swings at the candy stripers and had previously broken a nurses' nose. I don’t know where the candy striper supervisor was, but she wasn’t anywhere nearby. Anyway, I pushed the woman to a spot at a table in the cafeteria without incident, much to the surprise of the onlooking candy stripers.
I don’t have memory of much else from that day. But I left with a sense of empathy for the elderly that has never left me.
Life went on with many moves and family upheavals throughout the remainder of my childhood. That empathy I’d gained lay dormant for quite some time until Jr. High.
Always wanting to work and earn my own money, I went to the local youth employment office. They had a job “babysitting” an elderly woman in her late 80’s a couple of nights per week so that her 60-something daughter could get a break and go out to dinner or run errands. I’d babysat kids before, but somehow sitting with an elderly lady appealed to me and I took the job.
Myrtle and I had a wonderful time together. I made her dinner. I sat with her and we watched tv or she told me stories. We laughed and became fast friends. For some reason, I had to quit that job at some point. I was probably doing a school play or some other music extra-curricular activity. I never followed up to find out what happened to Myrtle. I always wished I had stayed in touch. Of course, I was caught up with teenage things at the time. Now I know better.