“So, what was it like living in a nursing home?”

This is a common question that I now get after being “discharged” from St. Andre Health Care, the nursing home in Biddeford that I volunteered to live at for 10 days this summer.

I am second-year student in the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, and this summer I participated in the Learning by Living Nursing Home Immersion Project that was designed and implemented by Dr. Marilyn R. Gugliucci, a professor in the Department of Geriatric Medicine.

As a participant in this project I lived the life of an elder nursing home resident complete with standard procedures of care, such as being toileted, bathed and eating pureed foods. Because of my “stroke diagnosis” — I was not able to use my dominant right side — I had to wear an oxygen tube in my nose, use a wheelchair to get around, and rely on the staff to transfer me from my bed to the chair and my chair to the toilet.

So, after this total nursing home immersion, this question, although straightforward, is particularly difficult for me to answer.

For somebody to even remotely understand what it was like, they would have to read the journal I wrote during my stay in its entirety — all 118 pages of it! To fully understand one would have to go a step further and go through the same process I did and be “admitted” into St. Andre Health Care. This project truly is “learning by living,” and it cannot be taught in a classroom.

I cannot think of another experience in my life that taught me more about the human condition and about myself. Maybe the most challenging part for me was that, for a few days, I had no independence. Staff had to help me use the bathroom, change my clothes and shower me. I even had to wear Depends. So many things that I took for granted were no longer available to me.

When I mention these things to people, they usually become very uncomfortable and say, “I can’t imagine myself doing that.” This certainly begs the question of why I chose to do this project as part of my summer break.

Being “admitted” into the nursing home was a learning experience I thought I was prepared for. I have volunteered in nursing homes and enjoy being around older adults. But being in the role of an elder resident for an extended period of time was something entirely different.

When I mention that it is embarrassing to have somebody assist you with toileting, one might think, “Yeah, I can imagine that,” and a made-up mental image comes up in one’s mind. For me, when I think of that now, I have a memory ingrained in me of what it was like having to wait for somebody to come help me and a visceral feeling that my sense of dignity was challenged as the certified nursing assistant dropped my pants and helped me sit down.

Because of the many experiences I encountered, as a future physician, I will be mindful when I write prescriptions, as I truly understand now what it means to eat pureed foods, to take nighttime medications, and to be restricted from moving on one’s own or from going outside. I have lived this life.

I have emerged from this project learning it is easy to take dignity for granted; life is more fragile than you think.

The nursing home community actually is quite special. Age is much more abstract than I realized, and I now know to look for the person that is behind every pair of eyes, no matter how old or ill they appear.

I am a happier person because of this project, as odd as that might sound. I will always be grateful for the chance to have participated in this project, and I encourage anyone presented with this opportunity to seize it.

Joshua Allen is a second-year student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of New England. Marilyn R. Gugliucci, a professor in the Department of Geriatric Medicine at UNE, contributed to this OpEd.