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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Choir nightmares echo waking mishaps

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Valley Chorale back in the 1990s. I’m in the third row, far left.

You know those dreams where you find yourself walking into a class where somehow you have failed to show up for the whole semester and now it’s finals and you don’t know anything and the teacher doesn’t even know your name and you’re for sure going to fail because you never studied or did any homework? You know that dream, the oh-shit-I-forgot-to-go-to-school nightmare? I get those. My shrink says everybody does.

But more often I get choir nightmares. I have been involved in various singing groups since fourth grade. I sang in school choirs, glee clubs and madrigal groups from elementary school through college, followed by a serious of adult ensembles, including the Coastal Harmony Vocal Band, the Billy Vogue Country Singers, the Skillet Likkers (not the famous ones), the Lincoln Community Chorus, the Central Coast Chorale, and for 14 years, the Valley Chorale in Sunnyvale, California. I have sung in church choirs since 1989, joined the choir at Sacred Heart Church here in Newport in 1996 and have been accompanying and co-directing since 2003.

In my dreams, the church choir and the Valley Chorale stand out.

Directing the choir at a small-town church like ours means simultaneously singing, playing piano and leading the choir—which may be only two people at some Masses. It’s watching the priest and listening for cues. When he says the last Kyrie Eleison, I need to be ready to play the “Gloria.” When he raises the cup, I need to wrap up the Offertory song. These days, with our chant-happy priest, our Masses are almost constant singing. By the end of the 10:30 Mass on Sunday mornings, my throat is raw, and my brain is shorting out. I keep thinking about lunch and other non-religious subjects.

The anxiety plays out in dreams. I’m late, I find someone else sitting at the piano. I can’t find my music and the priest is already walking into the church. My hands don’t work, my voice quits, somebody moved the piano or unplugged it. I wake up with some song from church playing over and over in my head until I want to dig it out with a grapefruit spoon.

Although I have sung in many other choirs, The Valley Chorale is the one that keeps showing up in my dreams. The Chorale (not “choral,” not “corral”) is still going back in California. It was started by a group of friends with a strong religious component that has faded away over the years. I joined when I was only 23, newly married to my first husband. They called me “Little Susie.” Through the years of that marriage, the divorce that followed, and the second marriage to Fred, the chorale was my family. Under the direction of mother-daughter team Marian Gay and Cathy Beaupre, we rehearsed every Monday night, sang almost every weekend during our fall and spring concert seasons, went on a weekend bus tour twice a year, and gathered for parties and dinners, weddings and funerals.

The men wore black tuxedos. The women wore loose pastel gowns that we declared a good fit if we could get them on and they didn’t fall off. We perched on the risers in jeweled sandals at senior centers, mobile home parks, shopping centers, churches, retirement homes, and the occasional concert hall. We’d break into song in restaurants, on buses, or at people’s houses. We were not out to make money or get rich. We just loved to sing.

The concerts, billed as Bach to rock, always included some classics, some gospel tunes, some folk and pop, and a medley from a Broadway musical, complete with costumes. It was corny. Think Lawrence Welk Show, if you can remember back that far, but it was fun.

Illness forced me to quit in 1995. The following year, we moved to Oregon, where I joined new choirs, but I never dream about them. I dream about the Valley Chorale. In those dreams, I show up after years away. I don’t have the right gown or I don’t know the music. Sometimes I have changed so much they don’t know me. God knows I have changed. When I left, I was in my 40s with curly black hair and a much higher range. They have changed, too. Member have died or retired. New people have joined. They have learned new songs. But I keep going back to those dreams. I’m on the bus, I’m at the semi-annual “bash,” or we’re getting on the risers about to sing and there’s no place for me to stand.

Some of the dreams are based on reality. There’s always a moment of panic when you’re changing clothes between numbers and your zipper gets stuck or you can’t find your shoes and you’re terrified you’re not going to get back to the stage on time—but I always did. Yes, your music goes missing, you suddenly can’t remember the second verse, you trip coming down the aisle, the strap breaks on your sandal, or you start coughing and can’t stop. Stuff happens. You sing on.

This morning I had a different dream. I can’t call it a nightmare, and I can’t remember many details, but I do remember I was introducing a new, young singer to the Chorale, offering her the experience of this wonderful musical family.

That’s progress, I think. Valley Chorale, I miss you. I still have my jeweled sandals. Keep singing. And church choir, please show up for practice tomorrow night. Father P. is making us change the service music again.

What do you dream about? Do you have school nightmares? Choir dreams? Sports dreams? Dreams about your kids? Let’s talk about it in the comments.