I believe most Americans are terrified of nursing homes, and for no good reason.
Too frequently is I hear; “How can you stand to work there with those poor people looking like that?” I believe our residents are life’s successes, having reached old age by surviving world wars, the Great Depression, personal tragedies and triumphs. Some are fully cognizant. Most share with us honesty, great stories, good humor, and respectful tolerance of their most challenging peers. So I ask that you hold judgment as you imagine strangers walking uninvited through your home as you snooze, mouth gaping, though the evening news, or as you eat cold pizza for breakfast wearing only your BVDs. This is our residents’ home, and you and I are only visitors.
Many people also say to me, “I’ve made my family promise never to put me in a nursing home,” but I have yet to hear the responsible subsequent phrase: “therefore I will lose 50 pounds so I can get myself out of bed,” or “ so I will read more to help keep my brain alert.” Each resident here has put aside the sacred goal of independence, mostly without bitterness, thereby giving their family the gifts of time and energy to do what we never can – be their loving spouse or child.
Frailty is the ultimate equalizer. In my 16 years here, those we’ve served include farmers, doctors, pro ball players, mothers, diplomats, prostitutes, musicians, professors, homeless, soldiers, coaches, housewives, factory workers. Each person has the same basic needs, and receives unbiased care.
Of course abuse exists in some homes, and should never be tolerated. And some people work very hard at doing very little. But much more often, workers earning little more than minimum wage offer the most intimate care with patience and tenderness. Many share their extra time and personal money to sweeten our residents’ stay. When I was once called to another nursing home at 2 a.m. to be with a dying friend, I expressed thanks for the staff’s presence, even playing his favorite music. One aide simply said, “You know we’d never let him pass alone.”
We are well trained, and in a crisis it shows. Last winter, when electrical surges fried both backup generators in our 96-year-old building, a smoke-filled hall with 25 mostly non-ambulatory residents was evacuated in less than 8 minutes – in the dark. Although I arrived too late to be of much help, I was also given the reward for our outstanding effort – a package of two frozen blueberry muffins. You see, the financial crisis in long-term care did not begin in September ‘08.
I wonder if my baby boomer generation will wallow in self-centered pity, or buck up to generous acceptance when our time comes to need help. Some of us will need nursing homes, and I believe good people will be there to help us.