Nursing Home Blues

Personal Essays

I’m having coffee and mentally gearing myself up to return to the nursing home where my mother-in-law is currently stationed. In my last post, I flat-out butchered both the overall quality of what we call skilled nursing and my personal disdain for the place she is staying.

Today I’m trying to identify some of the triggers that make it so difficult for me to visit. Here is an honest list:

First, The aforementioned general filthiness of the “5 Star” facility (see prior post for details). It’s Gross!

2. The heartbreak I feel for other patients: Of course, I’m in no way privy to other patient’s illnesses or personal situations but the sheer grief that shower’s over me when I’m there is almost unbearable. There is a man who cries out for his mother’s help  many times an hour. He screams out “Mother, I can’t breath. Help me.” Another woman simply asks for “Help” all day long.

Last weekend,  a man confined to a wheelchair asked if I would write a note for him. He had a tiny scrap of paper and asked if I would find a pen and write the following:  “Hi There. This is Harold. My phone number is…”. Love, Harold”.  I told a staff member at the front desk that he was clearly trying to communicate with a friend or family member. She shrugged and said “Ya, probably his wife who died.”

3. My own mortality: When we are  young,  its possible to visit a nursing home and feel like human rot and decay simply won’t happen to you. We don’t have enough experience with life at early ages to put those pieces together. At least, I never did. But honestly, at 49, I can glimpse my future and its terrifying.

4. Going through this all over again with my mom and dad:  I am lucky that my own parents are active and life seems mostly happy.  They have hobbies,  good friends and neighbors. Together – they attend sailing club events. Individually – they attend coffee clubs. My mom still attends garden and quilting club. They still own a small business  and they do some traveling. The deep connection they feel to their house and town they have lived in for 50 years gives them a sense of continuity and belonging. Still, I recognize they’re slowing down. They are not without health issues and there is nothing I fear more than their death.

Perhaps its not worth a debate but, as an only child, I think loosing my parents will be especially wounding. My husband comes from a family of six kids. I don’t want to diminish the loss and despair he felt when his dad died or what he’s going through now with his mom’s illness, that would be unfair. But, maybe other only children will identify with my plight. When my parents pass on, all our collective family memories go too. I don’t have siblings to reminisce with about family vacations, the time our house burned down, family pets, etc. I will still have the memories but who really wants to hear about all that?

5. Selfishness! I’m obscenely selfish:  My dear friend Gretchen best explained the phenomenon happening to many of our friends. Last year, when her youngest daughter left for college, she said “My kids flew out of the nest and my parents immediately crawled right in and replaced them.”

My husband and I became empty nesters this past fall when our youngest left to begin her freshman year of college. I will admit we had a difficult first semester. Being alone left us sad, missing our kids and their friends a lot.  But when we reflected on things at New Year’s, we realized how liberating the empty nest felt.  It was like George Michael was suddenly in our living room belting out Freedom”. And we liked it.

Six weeks ago both my mom and my husband’s mom took nasty falls on the same weekend. My mother spent the night in the trauma unit but was released with big black eyes and stitches across her forehead where she had hit her head on brick steps leading to her backdoor. My mother-in-law (also nearly ten years older than my mom) was not as lucky and has, thus, broke her leg and is residing in the nursing home.

Like I said, selfishness is the issue here and I recognize how awful I sound (and feel when I admit it.)  My husband and I were both blessed with wonderful parents who provided us loving homes in lovely neighborhoods. We went to safe, highly regarded schools, we were supported in our interests and goals. We were sent to college, etc.

My parents have been thoughtful, helpful and gracious my entire life*.  From babysitting, to volunteering in our kids schools, to hosting us on vacations, to seeing me through several hospital stays, painful surgeries, and depressive episodes, my parent’s have been an exemplary contributive team and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

Having said all that, I still have a tiny flicker of resentment mixed with fear for the day  when they are ill, facing their last days and I will be in charge. It’s both the loss of freedom and the chilling reality they won’t always be here that tumbles through me.

6. Last but in no way least…

Grief: Grief for the inevitability of my mother-in-law never fully recovering and the sadness my husband will go through when the day comes to put her ashes along-side his dad’s. I know he will need extra care and support and I only hope I can do the job well enough for him to feel understood, validated, fortified and loved.

And so it goes. I’m off to the nursing home with a deep breath and an armful of flowers that I can only hope brings a little cheer to an otherwise awful, disheartening place.

*Although the kind words included above about my parents/my husband’s parents are genuinely authentic, please don’t misunderstand. They possess inadequacies too,  just like every other parent. I’m not skimming over that. The idea here is not to present them as perfect human beings but to fully expose them as deeply compassionate individuals who are/were firmly committed to excellence in parenting. Mostly, they hit the mark. (More posts on various aspects of parenting to come….)

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