I debated long and hard whether or not to post the following account, but I wanted to put this out there and see where it lands. It is based on my personal experience, and how I saw and perceived those moments (and for the time being has nothing to do with birding.) I’ve changed the names of people I mention. The recount is meant to enlighten, to help (me?) process this life, and not disrespect anyone.
Visiting Mom on Christmas Day (Part 1)
A 1hr Nursing Home Snapshot
“Come on Robert” says Cynthia, “it’s time to go and eat, lunch is ready.”
Robert is a tall black guy, with grey twill pants that rise above his waist. The remnants of who must have been an elegant man are visible in his posture and his delicate movements. A smooth blue dress shirt neatly tucked in, and a pair of sturdy shoes complete his outfit. It’s hard to tell how old he is, 60? 70? His hair is short and kinky, with threads of white, woven in here and there. His face is smooth, his lips pursed and his blue-eyed gaze lost somewhere else – in that distant world that Dementia and Alzheimer’s takes them to. Every time I see him I tell myself he must have been quite a handsome fellow when he was younger.
Cynthia takes his hand and walks with him slowly, helping him shuffle down the hallway into the dining room. Cynthia is his aid for the day. She’s in her late 40s, early 50s – and looks tired, very tired, beaten down by minimum wage, long hours and an unforgiving job. Her eyes droop, her long black wavy hair is that of an aging woman, too tired, too poor, too busy to spend time getting it colored and styled.
This is not a job for the lighthearted, or for those seeking recognition. “Thank you’s” are hard to come by, if hardly ever heard. The aids are here to do a job, a great one – a job the rest of us weren’t up to the task to do. When I started coming to this place, over five years now, I understood very quickly that it’s not just work to them. They have an enviable level of human compassion and patience that most of us will never know – qualities that many family members and friends never develop because there was never a need to, or no one taught us how.
Edie is already in the dining room, sitting quietly at her table and facing the doorway, so she can see everyone that comes in. She has a bright red Christmas sweater on, her scapular necklace and her long white hair french braided to perfection. Her hands have started shaking now, making it hard to keep the food on her fork steady enough to make it up to her mouth. Eating on her own is one of the few independent functions she is still able to manage. When I first met her she could still walk, but for a few months now she’s been wheelchair bound, a natural progression when we’ve lost our ability to walk steady, and when we know a fall of any kind could mean the end of our life (more on “why” on a later post). She still converses and understands people, and always asks me about my son when I stop by her table to say hello. Panic and anxiety attacks have taken the best of her soul and who she once was, for twelve years now. Her mind is still there, but her body hasn’t followed. At seventy, she is dependent on everyone else for the simple everyday tasks we take for granted, from getting out of bed, to getting dressed, using the bathroom or brushing our teeth, as well as getting back into bed after a long, slow day at the nursing home.
The dining room is colorful and lively, always decorated to welcome whatever festivity is next on the calendar. One by one the residents settle in and take their usual spots, as the head nurse makes her rounds, leaving little pill cups at some of the tables for the mobile ones, or giving the medicine to others by scooping up some yogurt in a spoon, hiding the small pills inside, and feeding it to them. Edie takes her medicine cup, says thank you and smiles back at Sharon, the only real nurse in the facility – a strong Eastern European woman whose size and demeanor intimidates many, but who hides a knowledge of the elderly, and a level of compassion, that I’m secretly in awe of. (I used to think of her as Nurse Ratched, but have slowly changed my opinion of her over the years after seeing her engage residents in the most compassionate of ways.)
I’ve known Edie for over four years now. Frank, her devoted husband, comes to see her after lunch every afternoon. I cross Frank in the dining room area when I visit my mom at lunchtime. As I leave to take my mom to brush her teeth, make sure her her diapers get changed and comb her hair, Frank is coming to take Edie to her room for a nap, where he’ll read to her their mail, a book or magazines to keep her informed about the world outside. But today is Christmas Eve and “Frank won’t be coming” she says with a sigh, “he doesn’t like driving in the dark anymore – so he’s having dinner with some friends from Church.” I hold her hand and smile, cringing inside for both of them and realizing at some point, this is what life comes to. I’m sad for Edie because no family member or close friend will share dinner with her on Christmas Eve; and for Frank, who probably wanted to be here with her and can’t because he didn’t feel safe to drive, too old and fragile to deal with a stranger in a taxi let alone take an Uber.
“Well, you know it’s raining quite a bit outside, and it’s pretty cold too so maybe it’s best that Frank isn’t out in this weather today” I tell her, trying to make her (and myself) feel better with small talk. “As usual Edie, you look very nice today. This red sweater is beautiful. Did Frank buy it for you?” I speak in clichés, I know, but in my heart I want to let her know I’m present right there with her, if only it’s for a few minutes.
Bill, a new resident, is sitting next to Edie at the table. He has these large beautiful blue eyes, and a great smile. Though he’s unshaven today, and looking a bit scruffy overall, his smile and the glow in his eyes tell me he’s ok and having a good day. He wears a red university sweatshirt and colorful Christmas pajama pants with bedtime slippers. I’m sporting a huge smile because smiles are contagious, and I’ve just picked up on his, which makes me smile right back. I tell him it’s nice to see him again and gently squeeze his shoulder. He nods in acknowledgement. Bill is in his late 70s, also suffering from Alzheimer’s like my mom, but he’s in the initial stages, or so it seems. His wife, who I met the first week Bill moved in, is at home, nearby and will probably come in later today. She took care of him for as long as she was physically able to, and then it became too much for her to handle. It happens to all of us. You think you can do it all, and you “do it all” for a very long time (in my case my father did it all, and I helped when visiting them or from far away as a “long distance care giver”), until you can’t do it anymore. And it’s not that you don’t want to. And it’s not that you are exhausted (because you are, and it doesn’t matter anymore), but it comes down to realizing the person you love can be cared for better and will be safer in place with amenities and comforts you don’t have at home. That the one you love can and will be cared for by someone who has training, who you can hopefully learn from too. And you make that heart-wrenching decision and don’t look back, because it hurts too much to recognize and accept your physical and emotional shortcomings.
My mom was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s when she was 58 years old. She will turn 71 this coming July. She has slowly entered the late stages of this disease that has little by little, over all these years, shut down her mind and her body, and the normal functions we should be able to perform. She is still able to walk at a slow pace, mostly unattended, but is unable to speak legibly and I don’t think she recognizes me or my sister anymore these days. She does seem to identify my father who visits her on a daily basis for lunch and who takes her walking outdoors everyday, so she can get some exercise and sun whenever possible. I try to see her at least once a week now that I live closer, but sometimes even that is hard to do, because of my own family’s needs, because of work , because of home remodeling projects – all, I feel, both justifiable and terrible excuses.
The menu for today is enchiladas with black beans and white rice, and it looks delicious. Celia, the chef, is a short unattractive little lady, who cooks like a goddess. My dad brings my mom in after a few walks around the building (since it’s raining outside, we take her for a walk all around the perimeter of the facility, which is shaped like a square and allows for endless walking – and ideal activity for certain stages of Dementia and Alzheimer’s when “wandering” becomes a pastime). My dad tells her it’s time to sit down, and then he slowly lowers her into her chair (it’s like handling dead weight, so you have to be sure where and how you’re going to sit her). Once she’s safely in place, sitting all the way into the chair, with her back against the backrest, he then pushes her in towards the table, positioning her at an angle where it will be easier to feed her (he likes to sit to the right of her). It’s also imperative that there be nothing immediately in front of her that she could grab and that could distract her from eating or fall to the floor. It takes about an hour to feed my mom these days, as her food has to be cut or shredded into tiny pieces.
The dining room tables are covered with a thick protective plastic, à la 70s decor, showing a lively flowery yellow tablecloth underneath. Miss Gloria, an older African American woman, sits to the left of my mom, at the same table. Her eyes are always half open and she is slightly bent over and wheelchair bound, with a burgundy shall draped over her legs to keep her warm. Today she is wearing a burgundy sweater with little sparkles and two very ornate bracelets. Her nails are done in the color of lilac, most likely by CJ, one of the activities aids on site. Miss Gloria is always quiet, but if you talk to her, she will answer and is completely coherent. Her food comes pureed, and she is able to eat on her own, albeit very slowly too.
Edison is here today helping out too. He is 17 and works part-time at the center after he gets out from school. The athletic son of one of the Jamaican coordinators, his manners, kindness and compassion amaze me for someone so young. “Can I offer you some wine, cider or juice tonight?” he asks me as he pours water into my mom’s glass. Edison is another person I’ve come to admire here. After he finishes getting drinks for everyone from a push cart, he will sit down at each table and start feeding the residents whose family members aren’t present and cannot eat on their own.
Jesús walks in, always well kept in his impeccable crisp blue scrubs, bringing the remaining residents from their bedrooms or the wanderers who refuse to settle down for lunch. Earlier I heard him peek into my mom’s room and tell María – her roommate – “María, vamos ya, es hora de almorzar. Por qué no me acompaña y vamos juntos?” (María, let’s go, it’s time for lunch. Why don’t you accompany me so we can go together?).
A few minutes later, he wheels María into the dining room, setting her at the table next to my mom’s where three other residents have already arrived. A lady that is bedbound who doesn’t move and needs to be fed, another woman who has recently arrived, and Clinton, a partially blind, very astute and witty black man, will share the table.
María’s children or grandchildren are not here today either– but her bedside table beams bright with two elaborate flower arrangements that take the place of a too busy family member.
(To be continued in Part 2).
 Sadly, Bill passed away suddenly after being at the nursing home for just a few months.
 My favorite (funny) memory of Clinton is of one day when one of the staff members came by his table and said to María in Spanish “María coma” (María eat) to which Clinton replied in his deep voice “What, María is in a coma?”. 😊