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As I walk through the nursing home halls many times a week, my senses are assaulted with many things. Yes, there are the ever present smells-not pleasant. But the sights are far more troubling. In this nursing home, they have a policy of bringing those in wheelchairs, outside of their rooms, and into the halls, by their door. So often when I come through the door, I immediately see the “line up.” So many bodies that are alive, but no one’s home. Eyes that stare, but don’t seem to see. Faces that hold a lifetime of memories behind the eyes, (if only they could recall them.)

At first I thought this was a strange thing to do–bringing them out into the hall, to sit and stare at nothing. But I later realized, that many would never see anything, but the four walls of their rooms, if they were not brought out into the hall. At least in the hall, they can see people come and go as they visit loved ones. Sometimes there will even be a cat or dog roaming the halls for awhile, and an occasional child. 

And once in awhile, there will be some visible life behind those eyes. I was waiting in the hall one night, when a lady who had been wheeled nearby, suddenly began to count. She counted very matter-of-factly to nine, in a clear, steady voice. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. And then she stopped. Why she stopped at nine (and not ten) I have no idea.  My husband and I turned to look at her, and not really knowing how to respond, we congratulated her, and began to say how wonderful it was. She stared right through us, and then she retreated behind the mask, and that was the end of that.) Recently, I saw her sitting in the hall, clutching a big baby doll tightly, and it was one of the most poignant scenes that I have ever witnessed.

There is one lady who is still so beautiful. Her devoted husband comes every single day to have lunch with her. But she just sits in her wheelchair, and sews away with a pretend needle and thread, while he remembers days gone by.

One man sits in the hall daily, in his jogging pants, his hair sticking straight up, constantly saying, “Oh boy…Oh boy.”

Mrs. Martain is my favorite. She is spunky, and full of life.  She says that she’s been hired to count the buses that come to the nursing home. So she sits by the entry door, looking for anything that might qualify as a bus. (I think ambulances do, as they come at least a couple of times a day, for one crisis or another.)  She takes great pride in this daily counting  job, and seems to be quite happy in the nursing home.

Mary lives across the hall. And I do mean lives, as she will never again go home. She has settled in permanently, with a gallery of pictures on the wall, of children (six, I think) who never come to see her. She wears an oxygen mask, and turns her TV up so loud, that you can hear it far down the hall, almost anytime of day that you visit. It is one of the things I can count on, as I walk in. Every night, far into the night, the TV blares. Mary is in the “scary” room, where they first placed my mom for a couple of nights, until they had a regular room available. The occupants consist of Mary, who is sick and hard of hearing, but very lucid. And there are 2 other ladies. One is a demented little lady, who rarely interacts with anyone, and seems to be completely out of it, but she claps her hands a lot. The other is a very combative lady, who is more like an animal than a human. Most of the CNAs are hesitant to approach her, for fear of what she might do. She has very frequent, unexpected temper tantrums (that are fast becoming more and more expected.) She gets everyone told, (violently cursing), and then just lies in her bed, until the next possible confrontation.

And I try to imagine what life is like for Mary, who lives with people that she can’t interact with, and sits in the hall, hoping that a visitor might share a moment of conversation with her, or a greeting and a smile. She tells me that she gets very bored, because there isn’t much to do. (However, there are various daily activities from Bingo to Bible studies, and she goes to most of them. But still, there are endless hours of just sitting and staring in the hall.)

And there are scenes of frustration constantly, between aging parents and baby boomer children. On Sunday, as I walked to the kitchen to fill my mom’s ice pitcher, I passed a man and his father sitting in the hall. The older man’s meal tray was there, and the son was encouraging him harshly to “take another bite” or “take another drink.” The elderly man had his mind set on getting up, and going back into the room. And the son kept admonishing him loudly to stay in his chair, and eat more. His voice was raised noticeably, as his exasperation increased. (The father was determined to get up, and the son was determined that he wouldn’t.) They were still battling as I returned with a full pitcher of ice.

There are stories like this behind every door. Angry old people, and frustrated middle-aged sons and daughters. I guess when you’re older, you’ve lost so much, that it just seems natural to fight for the little you have left. There is the loss of privacy, the loss of autonomy, the loss of loved ones and friends, the loss of the familiar, the loss of your home, the loss of the ability to drive, the loss of bodily functions, the loss of physical and mental capacity, and the ever present loss of freedom. Who wouldn’t be angry?

The people who work in these conditions are sometimes angry and frustrated too. It has to be depressing. It is very, very difficult work, with little reward, and many complaints. You have to have a calling to do this, in order to survive. Otherwise, you will do harm to others and yourself.

And yet, in the midst of this chaos and confusion, I have found caring, compassionate people, who truly seem to care. Yes, there is sometimes laziness, and callousness, and roughness. But there is also kindness, comfort, and concern. (You just have to look for it, and be willing to notice.)

If you walk these halls very often, you will begin to experience fear. Not fear of the people, but fear of your own future. We have succeeded in keeping people alive much longer than ever before, but have we sentenced them to a hellish imprisonment in their last years? Are they living or existing? Is this where we will also end up? Once again wearing bibs and diapers? Trying to remember who we are, and what we might have done, to be brought to such a place? Searching faces for even a glimpse of recognition, or a hint of humanity?

Once you have walked these halls, you are not the same. For you have seen into the future, and you fear it may be your own…


One Comment

  1. Sparkle your post is quite poignant and paints an incredibly frightening picture that you exit from, with a true question and fear about yourself, because one is not guaranteed anything in life. What is, may never be what you think will be.

    I may some time ask you for the address again so that, if you give me permission, I can quote parts of your post in a writing.

    Thanks for sharing, Frank

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