Hanging out in the Alternate World of Nursing Homes

A world exists in the midst of our own that many people are not aware of. It’s a world none of us want to live in, but it’s not so bad to visit. I’m talking about nursing homes, assisted living facilities, memory care centers, whatever you want to call them. Buildings with old people in wheelchairs and walkers, staff in matching shirts, institutional meals and alarms on the doors. The kinds of places where old people land when they can’t stay at home anymore–if they can afford them.

Long before I had family living in these places, I sang in them with the Valley Chorale in California. We didn’t pay much attention to the residents back then. We just wanted to know where to dress, where to set up, and where to plug in our amps. We performed in our silky dresses and jeweled shoes to a sea of white hair and glasses, absorbed their applause, shook a few hands, changed clothes and went out to dinner.

It’s different when someone you love lives there. I started frequenting nursing homes when Grandpa Fagalde started living in one after a series of strokes. He was 94, and it was a shock the first time I saw him in a wheelchair, saying things that didn’t quite make sense. It was easier to sit at the piano and sing than to sit with him for the hour or two I visited at lunchtime or after work. But I came regularly and gradually became part of the family there. I greeted the staff and the other residents. They grabbed for my hands and sought my attention.

Toward the end, my grandfather didn’t know who I was. He knew only that I played music and that I would listen to him for a while. It was heartbreaking to see my grandfather this way, but while I was there, I could forget about my job as a newspaper editor, the errands I need to do on the way home, the teenage stepson who was driving me crazy, or the odd noise coming from under the hood of my car. It was just these old people in their limited world.

I never guessed that fifteen years later I would be visiting my husband Fred in a nursing home. He had Alzheimer’s Disease. He stayed in four different places before he died, but the longest was at Timberwood Court in Albany, Oregon, 70 miles from where I lived. Occasionally I played music there, too, but mostly I hung out with Fred and the gang. We watched TV, ate ice cream, batted a big rubber ball around, sang with visiting musicians, and went on field trips in the little bus. Some days, I would sit on the couch resting my head on my husband’s shoulder, even falling asleep sometimes.

I got to know the names of all the other residents and the family members who visited. I knew the staff. I would walk into the offices to demand things I needed for Fred—a haircut, his lost shoes, a doctor’s appointment. I was part of the Timberwood family. Yes, the residents had dementia. They screamed, they fought, they got sick and died. Some constantly begged to go home. But most made sense at least part of the time, and day after day, it was a beautifully furnished oasis from the rest of the world, unaffected by winter storms, summer heat, or the news on TV.

Beyond the coded-lock door, we were all safe and within shouting distance of an aide who would take care of everything. Fred soon forgot he had ever lived anywhere else. When his physical health failed, he moved to another facility that was not pretty at all. It was much more like a hospital. The hiatus was over.

This year, I found myself hanging out at another nursing home with my father. He wanted only to be back at his own house taking care of his own stuff, but I fell easily into the nursing home rhythm at Somerset. Here’s the living room, the dining room, the courtyard. Here are the aides in matching shirts. Here’s the office. Write Dad’s name on his clothes, hang them in the closet, make sure he has his meds. Get everything set up, then sit with him. Talk, listen, be. Meet the other family members doing the same thing.

Janet, the daughter of one of Dad’s housemates, arrives every day at 11 a.m. and leaves at 4 p.m. It’s like her job. She feels enough at home to go into the kitchen and help herself to coffee and cookies. She joins in the activities. Her sister handles the bills and such, but Janet is the one who has become part of the Somerset family.

It was different for me this time because I live 700 miles away. I visited in concentrated doses. Three days, a week, two weeks. But I got to know and care about the other residents and staff. I liked walking in to a chorus of “Hi, Sue.” I liked that there was someone waiting for me, even on days when my father was El Groucho, as my mother used to call him. While I was at Somerset, I could do nothing about work, home repairs, the needy dog or the emails calling for my attention. All I had to do was sit in the courtyard or the living room talking to my father. When it was time to leave, time to face traffic and take care of business, part of me didn’t want to go.

But of course I had to. These places are only pleasant to hang out in when you have the option of leaving. I didn’t have to eat their food, follow their schedule, or wait an hour for help going to the bathroom. I could walk out on my two strong legs whenever I wanted to. That’s the difference. For the residents, it’s a pretty prison which is eating up their life savings.

Nursing homes are a business where they charge a fortune and often give less than wonderful care. We can only hope our loved ones end up in the good ones. But sometimes since Dad went home, I find myself missing those people and those places where I could just sit and be. Also, I miss the Somerset dog, a white fur ball named Sonny.

When it’s my turn to move in, I hope I can be one of the ones who accept it with grace and smiles. I hope I still have enough working brain cells to make the best of it.

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Torn between Oregon and California

The thing with living distant from your family, whether it be in another state or another country, is that, if you have a loving relationship, you will always be traveling back and forth. Thanksgiving, Christmas, weddings and funerals all draw me south, back to California. in the last 17 years, I have made at least 40 trips.

The airport is so far it’s not worth the trouble to fly, and it’s not an easy drive. Hot in summer, snow, rain and wind in winter, traffic year-round in the Bay Area. Last Thanksgiving, I drove through intense rain and wind that left trees, signs and roofs scattered all over western Oregon while I struggled to keep my car on the road. When I thought the hard part was over, I ran over a bicycle in the middle of the 680 freeway, shredding my tire. When I arrived at Dad’s house, I declared “never again.”

Not only was the drive horrendous, but I was missing work, had to leave Annie at the kennel and generally turned my life upside down. But as long as I live in Oregon, and my family lives in California, I will do it again and again. I love my family, and most of them are not free to come to Oregon.

When my mother was dying, I wore out the I-5 freeway driving back and forth. Now my father is ill. I always knew that someday I’d need to rush down to help Dad. That time has come. I’m into my third week in the house where I grew up. I’m cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, taking out the garbage, buying the groceries and driving Dad back and forth to Kaiser hospital. He’s 91 and facing open heart surgery. We talk for hours and he keeps showing me things I’ll need to know if the worst happens. He keeps saying things like “when I conk out . . .” But we have spent magical hours going over old photos and sharing memories. We have laughed together. This time is a gift in many ways.

It’s not all fun. I miss my work, my dog, my WiFi, but none of that really matters right now. My father may die soon. Every time he falls asleep in front of the TV, I check to make sure he’s still breathing. He was sick in bed all day yesterday while I tiptoed around and prayed a lot. He’s a strong man, but nobody lives forever.

Meanwhile, I’m loving the California sunshine and easy access to the rest of the family. Between crises, I’m sleeping soundly in my old bedroom. This house is warm and cozy, not dependent on woodstoves to heat it. As I sit in my mother’s chair by the living room window writing in the glow of a pink and blue sunrise while my father sleeps, for the first time in years I don’t feel divided between two states. But I can’t stay here. I live in Oregon now.

I don’t know what the next few weeks will bring. We hope for a successful surgery and strong recovery that will allow Dad to live on his own again. Whether or not that happens, when my father doesn’t need me anymore, Oregon waits for me like a patient lover who will never give up on me, even though I leave it again and again.