Lighting up their lives

The Bluffs activity director Laura Christisen helps nursing home residents enjoy their final years with laughter and group activities.
Tuesday, January 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:39 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Several years ago, Laura Christisen met Ethel, a petite woman who harbored an enormous resentment. Ethel, who was in her late 80s, hated leaving the home her husband built five decades earlier to move into a nursing home. And she let Christisen know it: Seething with anger, she proclaimed, “God is dead!”

“It will get better,” Christisen said. “God is with you.”

Ethel struggled to adjust to her new life, as do many new residents of Columbia’s 14 state-licensed nursing homes. As activity director at The Bluffs, Christisen’s job is to help these new residents with the transition to the last stages of their lives.

Christisen and Ethel began listening to classical music together on KBIA 91.3 FM, Ethel’s favorite radio station. Over the next few years, they spent afternoons trading gardening tips, travel memories and life stories. Christisen shared the daily news from her garden. Ethel told Christisen stories about her childhood in Columbia, including the summer afternoon she watched gypsies’ wagons roll down Broadway.

Ethel died last year. Death is a regular part of Christisen’s job. She sometimes jokes that she knows the Memorial Funeral Home like a friend’s living room. She mourned Ethel’s passing as she has for others, by concentrating on other residents.

After five years, Christisen knows that for the Bluffs’ 132 residents, life consists of the little things like manicures, dominoes and laughter. She observes the resident’s lives when the outside world has stopped watching. And despite the inevitable death of favorite residents like Ethel, she enjoys their company.

Before coming to the nursing home, Christisen worked as an occupational therapy technician with various age groups. She enjoyed the elderly the most. She considers them fill-ins for the grandparents she barely knew. Her grandparents died before she graduated from Hickman High School.

Most of the time, Christisen prefers to live in the valley between yesterday and today. She fancies the old over the new. She religiously watches “The Andy Griffith Show.” She avidly collects antiques. She adopts geriatric cats instead of kittens.

On Nov. 14, Christisen turned 50. She often tells her friends that one of the perks of working in a nursing home is that there is always someone a lot older than you. As she jokes, her smile fills her face so fully that it causes her eyes to shut.

On Saturday mornings, The Bluffs smells like a blend of vanilla and nail polish. As Christisen enters the front doors around 8:30 a.m., she passes the sitting room with a fire in the fireplace. Then walking through halls decorated with paintings by local artists, she calls good morning to residents. The Bluffs is built in a circular fashion. A courtyard with benches and sidewalks at its center provides an outside retreat for residents. Christisen circles the track of The Bluffs several times a day. Curious to know how much ground she was covering, she brought a pedometer to work and found she usually covers about six miles.

Moist 50-degree fall air seeps into the activity room from the courtyard lined with shelves and tables haphazardly stacked with romance novels, books on tape, mended pants, abandoned gardening tools, board games and issues of Good Housekeeping.

Christisen administers manicures over cups of Folgers French vanilla cappuccino, a favorite among the residents.

As she carefully grasps a resident’s wrinkled hand like a fragile figurine, she asks, “What’s new in the world?”

“Monday is Jemima’s birthday,” Carolyn says.

“No, it is not,” Jemima says. “I was born the 14th day of May, 1911. I’m 94 years old.”

“That is a great age to be,” Mariann says.

Carolyn changes the subject.

“Did they catch the spy in the White House?” she asks.

“I think so,” Christisen responds.

“There would be a spy in the Bush White House,” Carolyn says. “No one likes him.”

Each morning before coming to work, Christisen pores over the headlines so she can report the day’s news to the residents. They crave news. They crave to be part of the story. Christisen, however, has time only for the headlines. The rest of the paper is left unread until Christisen’s weekend: Monday and Tuesday.

Over the course of two hours, Christisen paints 136 nails. Each resident has her signature color. Janet dons rocking red. Millie picks pomegranate. Helen opts for frosted pink.

The colors and cappuccinos are part of the Saturday morning ritual. Christisen has found a consistent schedule soothes the residents like an old friend. She also leaves room for the unexpected things that make life memorable: a pet visit, a children’s choir or a pizza delivery. Between the planned and the unplanned, little time remains for Christisen to finish her paper work.

A few months ago Christisen had even less time when her job became much more personal. After a year of hospice care, her father moved into The Bluffs. Donald Christisen was losing his battle with cancer. Christisen spent all her free moments at his side. She got a different view of her job from the chair next to her father’s bed. During those hours in that chair, she realized her job prepared her for the last days she would spend with her father.

The last memory Christisen has of her father is a shared lasagna dinner served in the dining room. He had never eaten lasagna in his life, but he enjoyed every bite.

The Bluffs residents who knew about Christisen’s dad supported her during that life-changing chapter with encouraging words and cards. To combat the sadness of her father’s death, Christisen once again focuses on the living.

As the sun begins to set, Christisen visits with people who didn’t attend the scheduled group activities. She brings Earl, a new resident, a hunting magazine. Earl keeps to himself, but Christisen draws him out. She spots an “Emeril Live” cookbook on his side table and discovers a shared love. Maybe another friendship will grow.

Christisen walks out The Bluffs’ front doors at 5 p.m. After driving across town and checking on her 81-year-old mother, Virginia, Christisen heads home. She loves walking through her front door to a clean house. She flips through the mail, gives the headlines another once over and turns on “The Andy Griffith Show.” As she rests her aching feet, she reflects on life and the living, already preparing for the next day.

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