Ortego says she is at St. James Place several times a week, and whether it's teaching flower arranging, or just visiting with the residents, or shuffling across the dance floor, she does it for the smiles she gets in return.
It's hard to believe that all these smiles are actually the product of loneliness.
Last December, one of Ortego's instructors, Wendy Jumonville, had to put her mother in a nursing home. On one of her visits, Jumonville noticed something. "No matter how good the facility was," she says, "or how much we were able to visit, or how much the activity director put on activities, there was a lot of down time. And my mother was lonely. And she missed communication, and not just her, but the other residents."
Jumonville knew she had to do something to help her mother, who everyone called Nana, and the other residents. When she brought the problem back to the LSU Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, the Nana Project was born. Jumonville explains the project is about more than dancing. For her students, a lot of it is quiet time. "They visit with the residents, and they share their lives."
It's those small acts – reading, saying the rosary, or simply sitting to talk – the company that resident Mary Grace McCarty enjoys. "It's just a wonderful pleasure," she says, "when you have young people come in because it brings back such lovely memories."
The project is not a one-way street. Clinical Speech Instructor Shannon Farho explains that even though the students get no grade for their efforts, "These students are learning very early – before any formal clinical training – what it's like to communicate with patients with dementia, with degrees of hearing loss, and with different memory losses."
For students like Ortego, it goes beyond the dance floor and the books. "The smallest act of kindness can bring the greatest joy to anyone's heart."
And that may be life's most important lesson.
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