Monday, April 23, 2012

Respect Thy Elders

Nursing homes are nothing new to me. I've had years of dancing in them, not to mention several elderly relatives passing away in them when I was younger, but it's been a while since I really, really, really saw the inner workings of one. Visiting my Grampa Avery and watching his care has been interesting...frustrating as well. I honestly don't think there is enough time, energy, money, or empathy spent on the end-of-life industry, if you want to call it an industry...and I will, because that's what it feels like. But I'll leave THAT for another day, since I'd rather write on a more personal level, as always.

I started bringing my camera when I visited because, firstly, I'm never without it, but also because I began to get excited over the variety of photo-essays I could see just waiting all around me as I walked down the disinfectant sprayed halls, not quite masking the scent of old age. Finding out that taking pictures was frowned upon, I was disappointed over losing the opportunity to capture those hands, those expressions, those stories, those quirks that are both sad and lovely as people come to the end of their lives. The acceptance, the restlessness, the loneliness, the clinging to memories, the complete loss of memory. Each one so unique and special.

I'm allowed to take photos of my own Grampa, and I do, but maybe I'm a decent enough writer to show you a few others, sans camera.

I wanted to sit with Edward and take some shots of his wonderful weathered skin. A dairy farmer long ago, tiny now with just a few sprouts of carefully combed white hair caressing the top of his pink, perfectly round head. He's without most of his fingers and toes, due to diabetes, and he sits in his wheelchair, wide awake and watchful, hands and feet covered by layers of would think he would be gruff or sour, but no. A small smile hovers around his mouth all the time. He doesn't speak much, just sits quiet, alert and peaceful. There isn't one ounce of bitterness about him. He radiates a life well lived. His eyes light up when he sees a child, or when you give him a little wave. He instantly waves back, a small salute from his left ball of gauze. He's adorable. Maybe it's offensive to call an elderly gentleman adorable, but he's just the cutest thing you ever saw. It makes me happy just to see his smile.

There is a woman, whose name I'm not certain of, that has a very distinct, smooth face and a bob of grey hair. She's tall, and thin, although she must not have always been. Watching her come in and out of sleep in the hallway, she held a baby doll carefully on a pillow. It was one of those cheap, department store ones, wearing a garishly printed polyester sleeper, you know, the plastic kind you can feed with a bottle and it wets itself. My mother and I were waiting outside Gramp's room for the nurse to finish getting him dressed so we could bring him outside into the sunshine. This woman would take up the doll and hold it to her cheek. She would gently rub it against her face and cradle it, eyes closed. I was watching her, fascinated, until finally, I nudged my mother and whispered: "Look at her with that doll. She's probably not aware of anything else in the world, but the mothering instinct is still so strong. It's just beautiful." My mom sort of snorted, and I looked at her, amazed, because normally my mother is even sappier and weepier than I am over sentimental things. She whispered back: "Earlier, when that lady dropped her doll, just behind herself in her chair, she was hunting around for it, muttering - 'You fucking thing, get OVER here!' " Well, then. Once a mother, always a mother, I guess!

A middle-aged man dressed for the golf course, came striding down the hallway, intent on visiting HIS mother, when a grinning gnome, buzzing speedily around in her wheelchair stopped him. "Let me ask you THIS." She demanded of him, cornering him neatly between a rolling cart of towels and a bookcase. "WHY are you wearing shorts in December?!" He tried to explain that it was, in fact, late April and rather warm outside, but she wouldn't let him off that easily..."No, no, no,(slapping her slipper encased foot against the floor with every 'no') you should put some pants on before you freeze!" She devilishly poked him in the kneecap before releasing him and zooming off.

There was a group of patients in the cafeteria being led through the motions of tossing a crocheted ball, knit of rainbow yarn, into a toddler's toy basketball hoop, set three feet off the floor. They looked understandably bored as the rec directer set the hoop practically in their laps and they simply took turns dropping the ball into the net. My kids ran in and whomped an inflatable beach ball off of each other's heads for a couple minutes, and the six basketball stars clapped and cheered heartily, which was probably more exercise than they'd gotten until that point.

Grampa seemed awfully perky this morning, telling us a long story about putting peanut butter in Dad's hand while he was a boy, sleeping at deer camp, and then tickling his nose with a feather, causing him to smear peanut butter everywhere, on his eyelids, up his nose...Grampa recalled all the details perfectly. He also directed Dad where he could find certain woodworking supplies back in his basement: "The third drawer down, over to the left, there's three boxes of biscuit joiner parts..." He loved having Eli push his chair around the courtyard in the sun, talking about baseball together. Loved watching the boys run in the grass with his Golden Retriever, Bailey. If it wasn't for the chair and the fact that he can only see you or understand you if you stand on his right side, he seemed just like he always has. Like Grampa. But by afternoon, he started to lose that sharpness and grew fuzzy as he does now when tired, began to wander some and get irritable, so we knew he needed to rest. Hard to watch that transformation. Grampa one minute, some old man in a wheelchair the next. Hard. But how I love him.

Gramp's mother, (Ma, as we called her) died in this nursing home when I was in high school. I hated visiting her. In a way, I still wish I never had. She had nearly wasted away, she looked like a bird almost, her hands curled into small, wrinkled claws. Her mind was gone and she would thrash about, tossing her covers off, her hospital gown riding up above her waist, and I found it very disturbing that we all stood, watching her, naked and not herself. I despised her losing her dignity and the nurses not really caring. Not caring that she was someone important to us. She was just another old woman, and they would roll their eyes as they finally came to settle her. "You're FINE, Hazel." they would say in no-nonsense voices. I never liked that those were my last memories of her, NOT her baking us gingerbread men, or pressing our cheeks between her soft palms saying "Ma loves you." I hope that my boys don't find this whole experience similar.

Luckily, Grampa is still with us in a way that isn't scary or humiliating to him. I worry about what the kids think of some of the other patients though. The man in a nearby room that cries out "Help! Help!" constantly in his sleep, while the staff simply walks by, ignoring him. The boys peek in, wide-eyed, wondering why he's calling, and why nobody answers. I try to explain, and my Auntie Dawn has done a great job of talking to them about the whole thing, but I can't help but feel worried that this might affect them negatively somehow.

I think about native tribes, people who revere the elderly, people who rejoice in memories and stories and place great respect on their aged relatives, and I feel sad that we no longer look at old age this way. Now it's a burden. A hardship. A pain in the neck that WE take time from our own important lives to deal with our older family members. When did we stop caring? When did we decide that lives no longer matter past certain milestones? When did we start to ignore all we can learn from our elders? When did we forget that they sheltered and cared for us when we were not yet able to care for ourselves? Why can't we be bothered to return the favor? Why is the end of life less important than the beginning? I see elder care in this country to be sadly lacking. And I see gratitude and empathy to have shrunk considerably as well. Connected? Yes, I think so.

Everybody matters. Edward. Grampa. Doll Lady. The Celtic hopefuls in the cafeteria. They all have a story. Somebody should be listening.

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