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Nursing Home Social Workers Share Their Stories: Intro
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Nursing Home Social Workers Share Their Stories

The practice of social work in skilled nursing homes involves multiple skills, a wide breadth of knowledge, and extensive problem-solving abilities. New ideas, sharing information, and practice wisdom can be important in maintaining and developing new ways to work with residents, families, and staff.Over 30 years ago, a small group of dedicated social workers began an educational opportunity for colleagues in the field through the NASW- MA Chapter at the Annual Nursing Home Social Work Conference. Each year, papers written by nursing home social workers have been presented to the conference audience. It is our intent to post these wonderful “voices from the field” on this website.

The most recently posted paper is below. Past papers can be found in Archives by clicking that tab at the bottom of this page.

Committee members: Frank Baskin, LICSW, Joel Langsam, LICSW, Julie Sahlins, LICSW, and Toby Savitt, MSW.

The Zenzahuma

By Lillian Colavecchio, LICSW

Preface: This is a common sense paper submitted tongue in cheek and out of respect for the social work profession, especially those of us working in nursing home settings.  We are devoted to the principles of human worth and dignity. Yet, we sometimes take our responsibilities so seriously, that we fail to see the obvious...which is human nature.

The hypothesis for this report is a simple one: the ability to laugh and find humor in ordinary routines enhances one’s psychosocial development and enables one to deal with stages of living, especially nursing home living, in a more flexible, positive way.

In order to test this hypothesis to the satisfaction of the social work profession, whose jargon is a trademark, the need to label it becomes critical. For the purpose of this research, the defense mechanism which reminds nursing home residents to look at the humor in their days and to call forth the early-learned experience of laughter will be defined as "zenzahuma"/sense of humor to the lay person.  (Since this terminology is new, I would not yet recommend its use in goal-writing.)

The zenzahuma is probably one of our more defined defense mechanisms, but little has been written on the subject.  The time has come to document (something social workers do very well) its usefulness and therapeutic value within nursing home settings.  While the incorporation of a zenzahuma is critical to staff, as well as residents, this paper will focus on its value primarily to prevent "burn out" among our residents, leaving the research on the former for another time.

Nowhere is the sound of laughter more welcome than in the rooms and halls of a nursing home. Laughter, as well as love, is ageless.  It indicates hope and joy, and signals others that all is well in the world.  In order to laugh, one needs to develop his zenzahuma.

There are some who never acquire a zenzahuma, some who lose it during middle age while raising teenagers, and others who retain it for a lifetime.  It is this writer's opinion that there is a latent zenzahuma in everyone, just waiting to be nurtured and developed.  The reality is that people can be oriented toward laughter, as easily as directed to the dining room.

In nursing homes, the social worker is charged with assessing each resident's coping mechanisms.  To find the zenzahuma, look first at the resident's face.  Lines around the eyes and mouth might indicate a past ability to smile, to laugh/how else would those lines have deepened  so?  A little light, or glimmer, in the eye might also be a fair indicator of your resident's ability to call up his zenzahuma.

Once brought to a conscious level, the zenzahuma serves a s appositive defense mechanism to enhance the functioning level of a nursing home resident.  Let me provide some case examples from the Van Dora Nursing Home.

Recently, when hurrying down the nursing home hallway, about my business of paperwork, with my hands full/charts and Kardexes in both arms/an 82 year old Mrs. B. peaked out of her room and said, "Ya got a match?"  That's a zenzahuma!

When 93 year old Mrs. H., learning to accept a shower as opposed to taking a bath all of her years, quips, "Ya know what they say, “smile and the world smiles with you, snore and you sleep alone."  Somehow, you sense that she'll deal with the shower.  That's a zenzahuma!

Eighty-five year old Mr. D. serious buys Megabucks tickets, putting together a number by combining staff number plates that he observes on cars from his room window day in and day out.  When asked about what he would do with his winnings, he replied, "For openers, I'm gonna buy this place."  That's zenzahuma!

A very confused, almost non-verbal woman in her 70's watched me daily, writing at my desk.  In session, I was attempting to have her learn and recall my first name week after week.  She finally acknowledged efforts, looked me in the eye and said, "I know your’s pencils".  That's zenzahuma!

Or the woman frightened of hospitals who calls from Boston to Foxboro to speak with staff about her decision to go ahead with the surgery.  She wanted reassurance that her bed would be held even if the procedure kept her for more than ten days.  When she felt satisfied, she jibed:  "That's great...since you'll have the time, why don't you paint it while I’m gone?"  That's zenzahuma!

It is their developed zenzahuma that causes these people to deal with boredom, routines, losses and fears.  Who among us has not used the same defense?

The nursing home social worker as enabler, advocate, counselor, and friend needs to reinforce and develop this coping  mechanism which may have become impaired for many of our  residents.  Help them to restore the ability to find humor in routine, laughter, in change and in a smile in their days.  If in fact the zenzahuma can provide, as indicated in the case examples, a “zens" of independence, survival, self and security, it is a defense worth building.

I regret to say that at this writing there has not yet been developed a zenzahuma transplant.  With the new focus on gerontology and this original research on the benefits of a zenzahuma to the aging process, I have no doubt that a zenzahuma implant is on the horizon.  Until then, and in conclusion, I am reminded that over my desk at the nursing home is a simple picture of an elderly man and woman holding hands.  The caption reads, “the best times are played on the oldest fiddles." I believe this in a musical sense, as well as in a human sense...and the simple refinement of the zenzahuma defense enables elders to keep playing.

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