Jim is my neighbor and a contractor. He can build, plumb, wire, fix, make, and create anything you want. His wife, Jo, is a nursing home administrator. She supervises 300 employees and is in charge of the care of nearly 160 people who can no longer care for themselves. Both Jim and Jo are great at what they do and are great friends.
Administrator Jo recently hired contractor Jim to replace a dining room floor in her facility and Jim, in a rare lapse of judgment, asked if I wanted to help him. Consequently, I spent two days last week scraping up glue, spreading adhesive, rolling a weighted roller, and watching Jim do all the measuring. I like working for Jim because he knows my limitations, teaches me how to do new things, and accepts me for who I am. But spending two days working in a nursing home gave me quite a bit to think about.
When you are a resident in a nursing home you are most likely there to die. Some ‘go’ quickly and maybe some not quick enough. There are amputees, people who drool over themselves and others, people who talk to themselves, people who stare into space, people who are incontinent, people who scream out, and people who fit into all of the above categories. Most sit in wheelchairs scattered around the hallways, glassy-eyed, limp, and accepting of the fact that they are not going anywhere until their tired body gives out. The temperature inside the nursing home is hot and the smells are usually not good ones. Death seems to loom outside of each resident’s room as their names are printed on slips of paper that are designed to be easily removed and replaced after each one ‘passes’. I would watch some of the residents go outside for a smoke and wonder why they didn’t run, shuffle, or roll for their lives. It seemed like a depressing, sad, and lonely place.
Or is it?
When walking through the hallways, instead of staring at my shoe tops, I began to look around more and I began to see things a little differently. I saw a toothless, hunched over, and wheelchair bound woman who earlier I thought was ‘out of it’ now singing along to every word of an Elvis Presley song on “50’s Day.” I saw an elderly man visiting his wife in her room and cutting her lunch up so that she could eat it more easily. I saw a staff member sitting beside a resident, holding her hand as if it were her own mother. I saw the staff smile, laugh, and talk to residents who weren’t making any sense. I saw that if you look the residents in the eye and smile you sometimes will get a glimmer of recognition or a spark of life. And, I saw Frank.
Frank is a resident who is in better straits than most of the others. He's not that old and he motors around in a wheelchair using his one good leg to drag himself forward. He has a big belly and red, splotchy arms. Both days I was there he wore Dickie work pants and black shoes with thick soles and white streaks on the toe…no doubt from navigating around in his chair by foot. Jim and I would be on our knees laying tile and Frank would roll up to the doorway to check on the progress of ‘his’ dining room floor. He would pretend to supervise us, monitor our progress, and tell us it all, “needed to be done by noon for the big dance.” We’d laugh and then he’d disappear for a while until he returned later and repeated a similar scene all over again. Once when I was walking past his room I saw him sitting in his wheelchair, sound asleep, with his head tilted back and mouth wide open.
It occurred to me that Frank, like most of the residents, was alright with where he was. Frank was happy enough, even though he was surrounded by death and the dying. I suppose I finally figured out that death is a big part of life at every nursing home facility, and that the people who work and live there figured that out a long time ago, and I would imagine at some level, embrace that fact. So, they don’t recoil at the ugly truths that getting old brings. But rather, I think they acknowledge them, accept them, and simply live with them. In the end, possessions mean little and while comfort is important all you really need or want is some dignity and some love in your life.
Luckily, for Frank and for his fellow residents, that’s just what they get.