Smith Says: Notes from a nursing home

  • Monday, January 14, 2013

I love reader feedback. Whether it’s good (“You’re hilarious!”) or bad (“You’re not too bright, are you?”), it means people are reading, and I appreciate it.
Joyce Owens of Summerville falls into the “good” camp. She’s sent me a couple of very sweet letters. The latest one included—in addition to her interesting opinions on politics and the military--some column ideas. One of them jumped off the page: “Ready for nursing home vs. staying put.”
There’s a topic relevant to many baby boomers. Surveys show that millions of us are now caring for the parents who cared for us.
My own mother—She Who Rules--has been in a nursing home for almost two years now. Some days she’s happy; some days she’s not. But she couldn’t live alone any longer, and 24/7 home care isn’t financially feasible even with the pooled resources of all her adult children.
Thus the nursing home, which she actually liked a great deal when she convalesced there following heart surgery 10 years ago. The difference between her cardiac rehab and now is this: Back then, she got to go home. This time she can’t. It breaks my heart.
Many times over the years, she’d announce, “Don’t ever put me in a nursing home. I’d rather be dead.” That will give you a stab of guilt at 2 a.m., believe me. My oldest brother, Bubba, bears the brunt of it. As the only sibling still in our North Carolina hometown, he handles her finances, medical issues, doctors’ appointments, daily needs, everything. I could give him my house and life savings, and it still wouldn’t repay him for what he’s done.
I try to look on the bright side: Mother gets three delicious meals (plus snacks!) daily, plays bingo, goes to art class, attends nondenominational religious services. After more than 60 years of smoking, she quit when she moved in--and Snickers’ stock has soared since then. I keep nagging her to stop eating candy, and the doctors keep saying, “Don’t worry about it.” I’m starting to see their point.
She enjoyed reading until her eyes got too bad to see even large-print books. She watches TV, talks on the phone and naps. At 84, she sleeps a lot, but I’m told that’s fairly normal.
When Mother is in a good mood, there is no-one more charming on the planet. To this day, she has the most beautiful manners I’ve ever seen. She can put anyone at ease, and loves to welcome people into her private room filled with antiques and sepia-toned photographs.
When she’s in a bad mood, she shuts the door and carps about the other residents, the bland food, the lack of visitors, too many visitors. It’s either too noisy or too quiet, too boring or too hectic. She’s not senile; she’s simply old and vexed.
And here’s a huge shout-out to the staff, who carry on with cheery professionalism. I’d rip my hair out in tufts, but they just smile and duck. One nurse put her hand on my arm as I apologized for one of Mother’s outbursts. “She’s homesick,” she said quietly. “I see it every day.”
But here’s the thing: When she’s on her game, the years fall away and she’s still the wisecracking woman who raised me. Last time I called her, shortly after the election, she didn’t say hello. She picked up the phone and said, “Donald Trump is an ass.”
Nursing home or not, who can argue with that?
Julie R. Smith, who has no children to send on guilt trips, can be reached at widdleswife@aol.com.



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