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.

Halloween photo sparks memories

Halloween at TimberwoodA few days ago, Facebook showed me a photo from 2010 of me and my late husband Fred at a Halloween party at the Timberwood Court memory care facility where he lived most of the last two years of his life. He looks disoriented. I look weary, and my glasses are askew. I wore an orange hoodie, the same one I wore this Halloween, and I can see orange and black decorations in the background. I remember bowls of candy,  somebody’s kids in costumes, and “The Monster Mash” playing in the background. The merriment was forced. Most of the residents had no clue what was happening.

After we said goodbye, I drove home through Corvallis. The trees were so brilliant with fall colors that I had to stop and take pictures. I walked the promenade along the Willamette River among kids in costume, couples strolling, and bicyclists speeding by. Mostly I stared at the river. It was always difficult to come out into the world after a visit to Fred, especially on holidays, which he used to enjoy so much. I didn’t know this would be his last Halloween, but I did know Halloweens were not the same anymore.

My mind goes back to 1997. Halloween occurred just a few days after Fred’s father died suddenly of a stroke. Perhaps it was unseemly, but we decided to go ahead with Halloween at Fred’s mother’s house in Newport. Fred’s brother and his wife were there, and we brought our dog Sadie. Mom Lick had a cold and stayed in the back room while we “kids” took turns handing out candy. In that neighborhood behind the Fred Meyer store, folks block off the streets every year and hundreds of trick-or-treaters come seeking candy. That year, they came in such a steady stream that we never really got to close the door. One of us had to hold the dog to keep her from bolting outside while the other tossed mini tootsie rolls in their bags or plastic pumpkins. It was cold and windy, but it was fun. Fred talked to all the kids, praising their costumes. Friends who knew my father-in-law had just died seemed surprised to find us doing the Halloween thing, but Mom insisted. She hung up her spooky stuffed monkeys in the window, set out her pumpkins, and we did Halloween as usual. We continued the tradition for another four years, until she too passed away.

It was a nice change from Halloween here in the woods where it’s so dark and spooky nobody ever comes trick-or-treating. I hang up orange lights, light a candle in a pumpkin and buy candy just in case, but always wind up eating it myself. I just finished last year’s bag of little Hershey bars. Now I have Tootsie Pops. You know what? They still taste great, especially when you get to the chocolate in the middle.

Our weather usually changes to winter in October. This Halloween, just before dark, it started raining like a hurricane, coming down so hard it looked like the ocean was coming to get us. I imagined the scene at many homes where the kids were set on going out and the parents were just as set on staying dry. Downtown was set up for the usual Deco District festivities where merchants hand out candy, but I didn’t see a single kid there. In Mom’s old neighborhood, over a hundred souls braved the storm. You’ve got to be tough growing up on the Oregon coast.

Growing up in San Jose, my brother and I did the typical Halloween thing. I remember smelly plastic masks, scratchy store-bought costumes and embarrassing homemade ones. I remember going door to door with our Halloween bags while Mom or Dad watched from the sidewalk, making sure we said “thank you” at every stop. As we collected Three Musketeers bars, Life-Savers, suckers, candy corn and other wonders, we never worried about the weather or had to cover our costumes with raincoats, gloves and hats. We also never worried about running into bears or cougars in the dark. Different worlds.

This Halloween, I sang at the 5:30 Mass, ate a late dinner and watched three episodes of “Gilmore Girls” on DVD. In the glow of my orange Halloween lights, Annie snored in the big chair and I contentedly sucked on a chocolate Tootsie Pop.

I hope your Halloween was good. Now it’s time to brace ourselves. It’s standard time, and winter is here. Will it be a trick or a treat? Wait and see.