There Are Worse Things Than Dying
“I cannot believe the service in this place,” my father moaned as I entered his room in the nursing home, politely avoiding staring at the dying patient in the next bed. My fathers last months alive on this earth were sad and lonely. He was in a nursing home for his last two months, and he was angry and sick and uncomfortable and scared. He complained and cried and demanded and railed at my sister and myself to get him out of there. We had him on a wait list for a different nursing home, but he died before he made the top of the list. He felt like he was a prisoner, at the mercy of the aides and medical staff. He was right.
For an old man of 83 years to end his days on earth like that is awful. Of course, the staff was kind, and helpful and friendly, although less so as my father’s complaints grew louder and longer and more insistent. Where else but a convalescent home are people kept in such conditions…poor food, untrained and underpaid staff, facilities and furnishings that are at best outdated, and at worst, dangerous?
We no longer put our mental patients out of sight in special institutions, yet such care remains the norm for old, sick and dying patients across this country. Reading about the mentally ill woman who died waiting for a room in a mental hospital prompted memories of my father’s last weeks. The outrage about that woman’s treatment is visceral. Yet where is the passion about the treatment of the elderly in some nursing homes everyday across America? My father was shuttled from home health care to hospital to rehab to nursing home to nursing home. My sister and I refused to leave him at the first nursing home because it was filthy (feces on the floor and wall of the bathroom) and the bed was so small my father could not fit. His next nursing home was cleaner, but that institutional smell still hit as soon as the 4-digit pin code was punched in to open the door to (or from) the outside.
My dad spent 60 miserable days and nights there. He hated the food, the place, the situation, and the circumstances. He was wheelchair bound from a chronic neurological illness, and dying from congestive heart failure. His legs and feet swelled to 3 times their normal size. A doctor never once came to see him.
Why do we accept this level of care for the old, but find it intolerable in any other population? How can the world’s wealthiest country allow people to draw their last breath, relieved at the prospect of the only escape possible from atrocious living conditions in substandard housing in an institutionalized setting? There are many worse things than dying, and unfortunately, living in a nursing home ranks right up there as one of them.