There is an older woman from India who lives in a senior building in Perth Amboy, NJ. Her name is Razia and she is very organized in how she keeps her surroundings. Razia’s home smells of lemon rinds, cardamom, and freshly baked naan. Not only is Razia’s apartment lovingly kempt, but the entire building within which she lives is stunning. It is a newly constructed edifice with huge windows, tall ceilings, dove grey walls and exquisite architecture.
As a homecare physical therapist, I have been to many senior buildings. Senior buildings are apartments for those aged over 55 years. Many of the ones I have visited have industrial brown carpeting in the hallways, broken elevators (in spite of the fact that many residents cannot climb stairs because they are older and infirm), and in one of them, the inhabitants use stolen supermarket carts to get items to and from their apartments. This makes for a traffic jam of carts between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, as residents attempt to get belongings on and off the elevators that are actually working!
Razia’s senior building is nothing like this, however. I am glad for my patient, that she has the luxury of living her life in a placid building with sunlight in every corner of her personal and community dwelling. It was on a Wednesday that I came to see Razia and suggested that she climb a stairwell. While Razia lives in a building with two well-functioning elevators, I knew that she wanted to visit the homes of her two daughters and grandchildren, so stair-climbing was important to her future.
Razia and I entered a stairwell which led up to an atrium. There were windows which spanned the sky at the top of the stairs. I instructed her on how to use the railing and her cane and Razia did a splendid job. It was not until we both arrived at the top of the stairs that we witnessed the snow. It had come out of nowhere. Swirls of snow circled about the window. Razia neared the closest window and placed her fingers upon it. She leaned close to the glass and her elated breath fogged the space near her mouth and nose.
Earlier that day on the news, I had heard that a snow squall was on its way. I had no idea what that meant. Until I watched Razia that afternoon, who was spellbound by the rapture unfolding before her. There were blustery winds that we could not hear, every window captured a view of the heavens, it felt as though we were surrounded by snowflakes. They whirled and they encircled us.
“Do you like snow?” I asked Razia, as we stared at this blur of white energy. She shook her head no. She then whispered in reply. “But I do like this…” Razia and I were within a snow globe. This Indian woman who did not like snow was enchanted by the feeling of being in one of those magical glass knickknacks that she had likely never known as a child growing up in India. I had seen many snow globes, but they had never really charmed me, not until now. I had to peel Razia away from her snow gazing and return her to her apartment. “You should not go home yet. It may be dangerous to drive,” she cautioned. I assured her that I had another person to treat in the very same building and scurried downstairs to my next patient.
He was a round man from Puerto Rico. I entered his apartment as this man sat in his wheelchair, strumming his guitar and playing folk music. “You are playing the Musica del Campo!” I exclaimed. (This translates as the Music of the Country). Jose replied, “This is because I am from the Campo! My grandfather sang this song to me!” Behind Jose was another enormous window with snow blinding the view to the outside. I encouraged him to turn his wheelchair around to look at it. “Oh, no!” He shouted. “It is a blizzard! This is going to leave a terrible mess! I have a doctor’s appointment scheduled for tomorrow. How will I ever get to it?”
Alas, Jose was not nearly as overjoyed by the snow as me and Razia. Still, I brought out Jose’s walker as he arose from his wheelchair and stood. Jose could not yet walk after a long hospitalization which rendered him weak, but the standing was still a victory. Together we stood in front of the snowy window, as I helped Jose get up and timed his ability to stand while using his arms on his walker. After four bouts of standing, Jose was able to maintain an upright position for 70 whole seconds. I grinned at him with encouragement. It was at that very moment that the snowfall ceased. It stopped as suddenly as if an angel overhead had hit a light switch into the off position. And when the snow stopped, there was only the faintest of coating of white on the ground and rooftops, as the sun peeked through the clouds.
“How did that just happen?” Jose asked me, his eyes large and astonished. I had never seen anything like it myself. Apparently, this was not a celestial happening. It was merely a snow squall, a common weather event. However, I had been with two other people who had never seen one either; and we three happened to be safely cocooned in the perfect location when it happened. We were together in a snow globe. Safe, contented, warm and able to observe the beauty of this quirk of Mother Nature as children do.
As I left the senior building, I hurried home to take my dog Ruben to the veterinarian, located near my house in Sayreville. I had chosen a new vet because my dog was having trouble walking. His hind legs were not keeping up with him, even when I bought little traction booties to help to stabilize him (for the low, low cost of $25). Ruben’s previous vet had been fine. I just wanted a second opinion on why he had stopped walking. Was it arthritis? Did he need glucosamine for his joints? But the bigger problem I was grappling with was my own guilt; I no longer walked Ruben on a leash and simply let him outside in the fenced-in yard. Had I created laziness in my own dog? In my line of work, I tell people that they have to get up and out of bed or they will wither and die. If I allowed that for my pet, then I deserved the humiliation that I was experiencing.
The temperature was rapidly dropping. I pulled up outside this vet’s office and noticed that the walkway was covered in coral-colored salt crystals. The pattern the crystals made was winding and led up to the well-lit front door of the establishment. I picked Ruben up and carried him inside; he looked upset with me. Why had I taken him out on this night of bitter cold, his eyes asked?
I was brought into a private treatment room to wait for the new vet. He was kind of famous in town. All of my homecare patients used him for their pets. “Go to Dr. Spin,” they said. “He is the best.” After a few short minutes, Dr. Joseph Spinazzola entered the room. He had that presence of someone completely comfortable with people and animals. He reached to touch Ruben’s head and the dog bowed his head accordingly. It was in that simple exchange that I was certain that everything was going to be okay.
Throughout the process of Dr. Spin’s examination, he spoke and asked questions with the utmost of concern. He bravely opened Ruben’s mouth and placed his fingers inside to examine the teeth and gums. He listened to Ruben’s heartbeat as my dog began to wag his tail. Dr. Spin stretched Ruben’s back legs behind him individually. “If your dog had arthritis, this would hurt him. I do not think that is why Ruben stopped walking,” Dr. Spin told me.
He then waved me closer to the treatment table. “Check this out. You are a physical therapist, so this will interest you.” Dr. Spin took Ruben’s right hind paw and flipped it over, so that the upper side of the paw was now bearing weight against the table. Ruben quickly corrected the position of his paw. Yet when Dr. Spin tried this on the left, Ruben did not realize his paw was in the wrong position and it remained there.
“Your dog does not have arthritis at all,” Dr. Spin calmly informed me. “There is nerve damage on the left side. It is likely coming from a problem in Ruben’s spine. And as you know, nerve damage is irreversible.” My face fell. Dr. Spin shook his head. “Did you hear what I just said? This is not your fault. Taking him on walks would not have prevented this. Your dog is thirteen years old! The fact that he looks this good is remarkable. I just want to double check the heart medications that were prescribed by your last vet one year ago.”
Dr. Spin picked up the file that had been faxed from the previous vet. He had a perplexed look on his face as his eyes scanned the paperwork. This was followed by a sudden smile. Then, Dr. Spin calculated the dog’s weight versus how many milligrams of diuretics he should be taking. He did this all out loud! I tried to follow along with what he was saying, but it was impossible. I could, however, see small mechanical gears turning in the doctor’s head; his mind was a series of well-oiled cogwheels, it was as flawlessly smooth and orderly as that child’s toy Mouse Trap when perfectly assembled.
Dr. Spin quickly rubbed his palms together. “We are changing the dosage on your dog’s heart medications. And lucky for you, I have these same medications in the back room. I know they are not cheap. These meds were donated from the owners of previously deceased dogs, so I will not charge you for them.”
Much like his mind, Dr. Spin moved very quickly. He ran into the back of his office to secure the medications and rushed them up front so that a vet tech could measure and label them for Ruben. Dr. Spin had spent close to one hour with me and my dog. He charged only $150 and the value of the donated heart medications equaled over $200. (This vet had also shaved and cleaned out Ruben’s ears. This was an incredibly good price). But money was not my primary concern for this particular appointment.
Over two weeks have passed since the snow squall. I look at Ruben as he tries to walk on the floor. Somehow, it seems easier for him. I am finished treating Razia, as she has improved to the point where she no longer needs me. I still see Jose, and he sings the Musica del Campo. A different song each day. Some songs are about broken hearts and suffering, some are about the beautiful sunshine of the land of Puerto Rico, and none of them are about snow.
Yet Jose still talks about the snow squall. Even as a guy who is not a fan of Northeast winters, he acknowledges that there was something surreal about it. I think of that afternoon in the snow globe that we shared. I will always remember the look on Razia’s face. She had seemed so much younger during the squall. Perhaps we all had. I recall the coral salt crystals arranged in a winding path that led me to help from just the right person. Dr. Spin had been part of that glorious day. Since then, Ruben seems younger. Perhaps it is because he sensed the protection of being around someone who allowed him to feel like a puppy. Much like my experience in the snow globe of a senior building, we had all journeyed back in our lives, with the wonderment of children. All because of a sudden tornado of snow that enveloped us in deep happiness.
I have since opened the door to the main office at the entry of this senior building. I inquired about the requirements of residency there. It would be a great place to live, I figured. I would have very cool singing neighbors from Puerto Rico. But the cheerful young woman in the office informed me that I would have to be at least 55 years of age to move in, and I am too young. Now that I ponder this, it seems fair. Beautiful buildings that resemble snow globes should not be reserved for the young. Razia, Jose and Ruben the dog have earned their right to be cherished, nurtured and surrounded by brightness because of their age. We as younger caregivers have the responsibility to allow them to feel this way. It is just as Dr. Spin said: “Anything can happen. Just take Ruben home and love him.” It is reassurance that keeps those alive who can no longer walk, it keeps them singing during the storms of life and it widens their eyes to watch the snow fall, while in their eighties, as if for the very first time.