Imagine you are 90-something years old and have lived in the same home for the last 31 years. Now, picture that you have been moved, at the insistence of your worried children, to a little space in an assisted living facility. You don't have most of your pictures or knick knacks, none of your books; your closet is mostly empty except for several robes, which you would never wear in public. You are required to wear a medic alert beeper and a wristlet with your key and room number. And there are old people in wheelchairs or with walkers--"white heads"--everywhere.
I went to see my friend Miss S, from my first church, this morning at her new home. Not that I think she'll ever call it that, even if a staff member insisted the whole place was her home when we were wandering around. It's actually a very nice place, as they go: clean, well-lit, decorated, lots of smiling staff. As a hospice volunteer, I've seen worse. But it's still a senior home. The place is impersonal and antiseptic; the workers, while nice, are still paid to be there. There were lots of half-asleep people lining the sitting rooms; others who passed her smiled and said hi over and over. I was the only visitor; visitors must be a rare occurrence because they thought I was a service provider not a friend of a resident.
It was all so bittersweet. It's good to know, as her memory wanes, that she is closer to help, but it is so sad to see her so uprooted, so distraught even. She misses her stuff; she misses her home. She misses her car; she misses her independence. She knows she won't leave this place or a place like it, that she'll be there the rest of her life and will die in a place like that. She is still totally cognizant of all of this, even as she forgets particulars of our conversation, details we've just discussed. And though I don't think she's ever felt old before, I think it's dawning on her now.
Of course, this is not to imply that my friend shouldn't be there. She's had some health challenges and isn't driving anymore. She hadn't been cooking much and only drinking Ensure. And now she's beginning to be more than just forgetful. Her short-term memory has gaps; she's having trouble accessing memories and information stored in her long-term memory, too. But then she could comment upon the NYTimes article this morning on Afghani women's suicides and the tense political situation between North and South Korea. Though I had to tell her twice in the same conversation that I was coming today; she repeats stories minutes apart. She couldn't remember how to make the apricot brandy she's made every holiday as long as I've known her (she's saved me the last bottle but it's with her stuff and she's frustrated no one has brought it); she wasn't sure what country her beloved granddaughter-in-law was from. And that's just what I've noticed in the last week; mind you, this has come on quickly--just a few months ago, it wasn't as obvious. Her family was right to be concerned and to act, I think. Even if she said it all made her numb.
I know there are those who bemoan such senior and nursing facilities, believing it's proof that Americans don't love their aging parents. That's a reactionary response to the fact that Americans live longer with illnesses and disabilities than ever before and their children, often in two-working adult families and often not nearby, can't bring them home and care for them as they might have before. Take me for example: even if my parents lived in my very town and not 1800 miles away, and even though I'm a stay-at-home mom and not working, I could not physically care for my parents if they were to become sick or immobilized (no, I'm not planning on putting y'all in the home.) Nursing homes and such try to address this; they are, in many ways (many, many), imperfect answers to the challenges, especially the less-expensive, lower end places. And of course, they are usually for-profit institutions, cutting corners whenever possible (I recently read about the place that requires residents to have feeding tubes--that's quicker than spoon feeding! Clearly, there needs to be more oversight . . . and compassion). But they are the answer we have now. And it's not the choice you have to make for your family. I'm pretty sure I won't want to make it for mine; I think it was probably hard for my parents to put some of my grandparents in nursing homes. And I imagine my friend's family is both relieved and conflicted and even grieving as well now that they've placed her in the facility. No one is happy.
So I hope to visit frequently. I mean, I do it with hospice for strangers; I look forward to visiting my friend (and make no mistake, she's neither ill nor in hospice.) I've even promised her that we'd take her out to lunch sometime soon and bring the kids for a visit (she's known them all their lives, looks on them very fondly)--she was so excited. I know she's scared about being stuck there, being forgotten in her dependence and isolation. As much as I can, I hope to help her feel loved, needed, and connected.
Even in that place.
Not Her Recipe for Apricot Brandy (but I bet it's close)
1 1/2 lbs dried apricots
1 quart vodka
1 lb sugar
Place ingredients (DO NOT MIX) in a 1/2 gallon flat topped glass jar.
Turn jar twice a day for 8 days (allowing jar to sit on its top for half a day).
Batch is ready.
You may use the same apricots, more sugar, and vodka added to make another batch, but let second batch sit for 12 to 14 days.