Nursing Homes: Not For the Faint of Heart

( Everyone should visit a nursing home at some point in his or her life.

Not a fancy retirement home for the well-to-do. Not a souped-up “village” for active seniors. But a real, honest-to-goodness nursing home. Stomach-turning smells, heartrending sights and sounds and all.

Nursing homes are filled with people who were once capable and useful and acknowledged–and who now, primarily because of advanced age, exist in a vacuum that is penetrated only by the kind touches of a nurse or the occasional visiting family member.

Former CEO’s can share a room with a common housewife and mother. Age and dementia and incontinence know no difference between Asians, Blacks, Whites, Latinos. They are now unified by their need of a diaper change or higher bed elevation so that they can partake of today’s mound of rice and cup of meat and scoop of vanilla pudding. Oh, and a tiny carton of milk. A la grammar school. It’s a coming of full circle.

If you have never traversed the halls of a nursing home, never spent an extended amount of time sitting in a resident’s room, never witnessed meal time in the common dining area and so on, you live in a bubble. Completely isolated from these people who helped to build up this world in which you now Google and Skype and Tweet. It is precisely because they’ve lived that you truly live. And you drive past them with nary a glance.

These once-members of society are often dementia-weary. Speaking out to no one in particular. Singing “Pop Goes the Weasel” a cappella and LOUDLY to the dismay of everyone in their midst (“Go back to your room!” the dementia-free proclaim). Some look distant. Lonely, maybe. Some look hopeful (as if they’re not actually residing in a pit of oldness). And some look, for lack of a more accurate word, dead. They are here, yet gone.

During the past three years, I’ve spent many an hour “visiting” a number of nursing homes. For my grandfather Albert, who ultimately passed away at the age of 95–mostly because of old age. And for my grandmother Lucy, who just turned 95. And who most days doesn’t know that Grandpa Albert is gone, let alone that he was her husband.

One of Grandpa’s roommates was a man named Manuel. Who fell down one day coming out of the bank, hit his tailbone, and was never the same again. He passed away, surrounded by his family. Another roommate of Grandpa’s was a 90-something year old man who tried to answer the questions on Jeopardy. And who looked quite healthy–as if he didn’t “have” to be there. I never did ask the nurses why he was there. One day, when this man was away at a Broadway music revue in the activity room, Grandpa died in bed. Surrounded by his family.

Little did my Mom and I know that within a few months’ time, my Grandma would also end up in a nursing home. A fall, a broken hip and pelvis, and worsening dementia, have led to her permanent stay at the home. After 25 years of caring for my grandparents at home (the last 5 of which were filled with their worsening health issues), my mom’s mind–and back– could no longer take it. Mom’s on her way to her 2nd hip replacement. The arthritis in her hips no doubt exacerbated by the diaper-changing.

Grandma’s roommates have included an Asian lady who didn’t look elderly but who looked exhausted. I always saw her asleep. Comatose, really. My mom tells me that the lady had lost her mother and that she cried out for her. The lady died the day after Christmas. Maybe of complications from a surgery she’d had. Maybe of a broken heart.

I could tell you about other roommates who have passed on, but the ones who have remained sometimes break my heart even more.

The ones who are so excited about a rare outing (for their birthday or for Christmas) that they are reminding the nurses days in advance of their departure time on said date. I bet they even lose sleep over it. Or the ones who don’t leave the premises, but have a little party at the nursing home itself. The man in the wheelchair who sits wearing a tuxedo–and sneakers. His sister accompanying him to the Christmas party there, where her gift to him was…the tuxedo in which he is dressed. He acts child-like. I don’t know if it’s dementia or a developmental disorder or something else. Sometimes I don’t try to figure out the Why? anymore. I just try to acknowledge his personhood. On this day, this sister’s granting of a wish for her brother is enough to bring me to tears. I turn my head and cry, as they sit only a few feet from me. I bet they never imagined this scenario as they played hopscotch 70 years ago.

Or the 60th Anniversary celebration that took place in the lobby of the nursing home. Right near the entrance and the receptionist’s desk. A party consisting of Red Lobster meals, beverages in crystal goblets, and a man and his wife. He, a nursing home resident in his wheelchair. She, visiting him. Til death do them part.

And then there’s my very own Grandma. Who lately calls me “Señorita” instead of “Liz”–and who doesn’t even ask about her one and only son.

You may think it’s unlikely or impossible even that you would one day have to partake of apple juice out of a crystal goblet. Or need help bathing. Or God forbid, need a diaper change. And this just means that you’re oblivious. Just as I used to be. But life can turn on a dime (did I mention the younger residents? Some in their 30’s even?)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during this period of “research”, it is that my mind and body are not entirely my own. They’re merely on loan.  And humility is key…