Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Nursing Home

So many conflicting feelings. This facility is actually bright and cheery, clean and well-staffed. It's attached to the Regional Medical Center, and so has a competent, professional air. Most of the residents and staff are happy and friendly and helpful. Anyone who despairs about the latest generation (someone is always despairing about the latest generation) should spend a little time here. Trim, perky 20-somethings are everywhere, doctors and nurses and therapists and aides and volunteers.

Who are all these people who have chosen to bring some measure of ease to these anonymous people's final days? What kind of person picks this for a job? What imprints are left on the staff from seeing the ends of so many lives, the termini of our well-lived days? I just don't think I have this in me: I simply couldn't do this job 40 hours a week. But there they are, smiling and saying hello, joshing with the elderly residents, bringing sunshine to people whose tenure at this place will likely be measured in months or weeks. But most often we don't know these things, and these days count like any other days. And so activities are scheduled, desires accommodated, protocols established and personalized and followed. Some residents are wheeled into the cafeteria with oxygen tanks and special power chairs that are nearly beds, the human being with children and grandchildren buried beneath tubes and pumps and monitors, but no less human for that. The little gestures from the staff remind all of us of this simple fact. My mom's roommate Fran makes her way into supper under her own steam tonight, using a walker, rather than coming in her wheelchair, and this gets a vocal reaction from five or six different dining room staff. Fran is pretty happy at this.

I sit in the cafeteria, helping with meal choice and with dining, assisting and encouraging and helping keep focus. So many people in similar circumstances, better and worse. My mother is different, of course. She is not anonymous. She has a long, sparkling history, many connections, friends and acquaintances and a storied past. But after a few short minutes in this setting these individual pathways leading to this nexus fade back into the past, histories dissolving as we watch, nuanced details overwhelmed by the blunt force of crippling infirmity, by the great equalizer of failing health. You're only as good as your last adventure, and this is who we are now: old and struggling with our deficits along the last journeys punched out of this one-way ticket.

It's just so sobering. This is where we're all headed--life at its tattered end. So many people being fed by staff, sitting silent alone or lonely surrounded by other lonely people. Days go by without visitors. I can see me in that wheelchair, alone at my table with my head full of everything that has passed up to this point, reliving the glory that was when I can no longer make new glories. I will remember my wife's smiling face, the homes I made and left, the rotation and lift-off of the DC-8, my childhood in Iowa. This is how life goes, each and every time. But lots of old girls still wear a smile and talk of their plans: someone is coming to take them to the beauty shop on Thursday; Golden Girls is on tomorrow; there is bluegrass music in the chapel tonight; the Twins are playing at seven.

In fact my mother's needs are greater than most. Why are some of these people here? Our culture does not often find people living in extended families under a single roof. How odd to see someone very nearly capable of living on their own being in here--just past the tipping point where, without a spouse or live-in relative, there's just not enough security to leave them at home alone. A relief maybe, but purchased at so exorbitant a price, a one-way portal walked thru after a hesitation. This is it. Make your peace with it.


Esbee said...

Bil, your area doesn't have Senior Services to help seniors who wish to live independently do so?

How are your Mom's spirits? Thinking of you and her and sending many good thoughts and wishes.

wunelle said...

I think there are programs to assist seniors who wish to remain in their homes. We haven't looked into them much as mom's deficits will prohibit this option, at least for now.

Her spirits seem mostly good, though historically she's inclined toward a bit of selective oblivion to keep her outlook sunny. This is not all bad, of course--a sunny outlook counts for a great deal--but I think effective progress in therapy requires a certain steely-eyed look at what we are trying to overcome. Without this, the motivation to work hard in therapy begins to slip a bit, and I think we're beginning to see a bit of this.

We're happy that she's in a good facility, tho.

woolf said...

It does take some steely eyes to continue with therapy--and sometimes it is more with the family than the patient. Especially if the patient is very young or an older person. When I was little I had a lot of surgery and therefore a lot of therapy. And, looking back, I see it was the toughness of my mama and daddy to get me through it. Because often it was painful--and I doubt any normal parent likes doing anything that causes pain. I'd imagine it is the same for children to have to get their parent's toughness up.

Dzesika said...

I'm so sorry. The past few years have seen me visiting a lot of nursing homes, and I know what you mean; you could have stolen words from me.

But maybe, just maybe, there's some small lesson to be taken by the ladies who are all excited that Golden Girls is on tonight. Maybe there are always small things in which to take comfort. I'll let you know when I find out myself.

wunelle said...

It's my dad who acts as the backbone in all this, the one keeping his eye on the ball and keeping my mom's head in the game as much as possible.

And boy, in the end it's these little things that are all we have. Little comforts, personal connections. The nursing home resident with visitors and friends is rich, and those without, no matter how much money they have, are in a poor state.

Paul said...

According to my friends in the industry, the trend in new retirement centers resemble planned communities, ie closely connected homes, complete with families of all ages, including children. It is an attempt to create a sense of community and hopefully improve the resident's quality of life.

Parent of woolf

wunelle said...

I think as the population ages this kind of thing will become kind of inevitable, both as a cost-saving measure (with so many people needing care) and as a means of keeping touch with so much societal wisdom. We seem to have become a culture which values only youth and innovation, which is maybe an offshoot of the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of technology from WW1 onward.

At some point, it seems like we ought to reconnect with our collective humanity.