Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Holidays on Unit 2

 Holidays on Unit 2, 2011


It’s a bleak existence riding out one’s last days in a nursing home. I’ve visited nursing homes that are like fine hotels and others I wouldn’t set foot in again.

No amount of luxury, though, can conceal the sadness of watching a loved one’s mind and body slip away. One of the things you eventually figure out if you have a loved one in a place like this is that whatever the luxury appointments, most of it’s for the benefit of family members and visitors, not the patients. My mother’s facility recently completed an extensive cosmetic overhaul. The public areas look like a country club. Not much of this renovation has reached the patient rooms yet, though.

To be honest, though, most of the patients at my mother’s nursing home can’t tell the difference. Little pieces of institutional furniture appear and disappear from my mother’s room without her being aware they were ever there in the first place. When she was briefly quarantined because of a contagious infection, she didn’t even notice that her roommate had disappeared.

My mother’s bed is beside a window. The view from her pillow is to the southeast. She gets the morning sun. She knows this is the direction of the ocean. She used to love to swim in the ocean. But it’s been five years since she saw the ocean in person.

A beautiful crepe myrtle tree is just outside her window. She used to keep track of the seasons by watching that tree. Now she’s barely aware of it.

If she were more alert, there’d be no end of things to watch out the window. Looking across the courtyard into the windows of the rooms on the next hallway over is a little like being in Rear Window. Patients, and especially family visitors, act out pantomimes that sometimes leave you wondering whether it might be wise to call security to check in on them.

But most days it’s just the routine stuff you see going on in those rooms across the way. Nurses and other caregivers attend to their often messy work with a level of cheer that constantly amazes me. They’re always busy. But every now and then you see someone who’s got every reason to feel harried take a moment to express kindness to a resident whose behavior or condition makes them a challenge to look after. My mother used to be one of the higher functioning people at her nursing home. Now it’s hard for her to communicate coherently and she’s given to outbursts that can make her a challenge to look after. I appreciate those moments of patience and kindness on the part of the staff.

There’s not a lot of conversation most days when I visit. Questions and answers get repeated a lot. If she does grasp onto a thought, she’ll keep repeating it to herself lest it slip away. She used to tell herself “Alright” when she needed a reminder that she could accomplish some small act of physical movement. Now her voluntary movement is so limited that if something’s not in her immediate sight line it isn’t in her consciousness.

All the days look pretty much the same in a nursing home. Holidays are no different. 


  1. It's a hard time isn't it?

  2. I experienced much of this as well, with my mom. The window proved an unfortunate distraction, as it was the source of constant .."hallucinations" of what was, and was not, going on out there...fantasies which were always dire, and usually involved me or my son. No amount of discussion could persuade her otherwise, and she would get very angry if you tried to assure her that all was really ok. All so painful to experience, for all concerned.

  3. I'm so sorry about this difficult time for both you and your mother. It sounds as though she is being cared for by decent, kind people. That is reassuring.