We were in Texas last week to continue talking with Kurt's mom about moving into an assisted living place. Unfortunately she was in a nursing home for a week following a bad infection that had first put her in the hospital. The nursing home stay was merely to get her strength back with physical therapy before returning home. She should be home by Friday or Saturday.
The nursing home experience was brutal, not so much around my mum-in-law as she's doing very well. But the general atmosphere of the place was pretty depressing. The energy there is heavy and death or at least a level of suffering seems to linger in the corners. Most of the people I saw there every day were permanent residents and two of them both touched and broke my heart.
The first woman was in a wheelchair, parked near the nurses station. There were always at least four or five people parked near the nurses station every day, either for stimulation or for the nurses to keep an eye on some of them. This woman was holding a teddy bear in her arms, cradling it like a newborn baby. She held it so gently and at just the right angle to coo quietly to it, all the while caressing the teddy bear's cheek. I wanted to stop and watch her for a minute, but forced myself away, biting back tears. What was going on in her mind? It seemed so sad to me but perhaps she was comforted by the bear, seeing instead her own newborns from decades ago, remembering the joy of each tiny body wrapped in her arms. I hope she is at peace wherever she is in her mind.
The second woman was much more with it. Kurt and his mom were playing cards in the dining room and I was sitting with them when a woman in a wheelchair passed behind me. I scooted my chair up to give her room then turned to make sure she could clear past. "Do you have enough room?" I asked, smiling, and she smiled back, saying she had plenty of room. Then she pulled her chair right up to me and reached over and gave me a huge hug and said, "I just need some lovin'!" She hugged me again and I hugged her back. She said, "Don't you just need some lovin' sometimes?" And to avoid bursting into tears I laughed and pointed at Kurt and said, "That's what I have him for." And she smiled and moved along toward the hallway and back to her (I assume) lonely room in the nursing home. I really fought the tears over that one.
I can't imagine how lonely it might be to live in a nursing home like that. I hope I'm wrong and that there are many more visitors than we saw during our brief time, but my hope is not so strong.
While it was tough going on some levels, I am really glad we were there to experience it all, even the awful smell of urine down the hall on our last day. I realized how out of touch I am with that generation, what would be my grandmother's generation and the idea of the "Old Folks Home." The image conjured up by "Old Folks Home" has never been a pretty one and this nursing home didn't help. You can not avoid the mortality in those places, your own potential future. If not specifically a nursing home, then at least the aging and whatever infirmity that might come your way. It's not always a pretty sight and so we avoid it until forced to confront what comes our way in our own families.
The good news is, as we look for assisted living places for Kurt's mom, there are an amazing array of options out there and we are going to find a good one for her. This is also a lesson in preparing for the future, making sure we have assets and strong retirement funds and investments. I do not want to be looking for hugs from strangers in a sad nursing home. Plus, looking at that end of life is challenging because I feel like I'm still just starting my own life with Kurt! We are talking about having kids at some point in the not too distant future, which makes me feel like I'm only 20-something.
Ask your parents and older family members, if you haven't already, what their plans are for the future. Open that conversation so there are no surprises, no forced moves into places that are not ideal. Plan plan plan. That is one lesson I came away with.
The other lesson is to connect with seniors I will be meeting in the future. Kurt's mom will probably be living in an assisted living residence in Los Angeles in the next few months which means much more time with her and with all her new friends and "house-mates". I want to hear their stories.