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Uncovering Joy in a Nursing Home

Uncovering Joy in a Nursing Home

“Look at him,” Mom says and nods to the corner.

I look to see an elderly man in a folding chair nuzzling up to his elderly wife. He whispers in her ear, but she doesn’t seem to hear. She stares out the window, smiling. He holds her hand in his. His other hand is inside her shirt, cupping her breast.

Mom grins and shakes her head. “He’s 92 and has dementia and still has only one thing on his mind.”

“I guess there are some things guys never forget.”

I glance at my daughters, hoping they didn’t see 007 doing his thing in the corner. They’re busy showing Grandma Hoover a card they’d made her. Good, I think. Dodged a bullet. 

It’s 1999. We’re at Pekin Manor, a nursing home where my Grandma — Dorothy Lillian Hoover — is a resident. She’s been there for a year now battling the latter stages of Alzheimer’s.

I look around at the residents of the home. Some are visiting with family. Others mill about aimlessly. A great many are parked in wheelchairs here and there like abandoned shopping carts. The place smells of urine.

Suddenly, the lights go out.

“What happened?” I ask.

“That’s Gladys,” Mom says, and thumbs toward the hallway.

I step into the hall. A nurse with latex gloves comes out of a room, hands held up, and walks across the hall and nudges the light switch with her elbow. As she walks back to the room, she passes an elderly woman who is strolling the hall. The nurse says, “Let’s keep the lights on, shall we Gladys?”

Gladys makes no reply, nor does she turn her head or slow her pace. She continues walking, hugging the wall as she goes. She walks to the end of the hall, turns, and then loops back along the opposite wall.

Unlike many of the residents, Gladys isn’t wearing a robe or nightgown. She’s fully dressed: a blouse, a skirt, and canvas shoes that squeak as she shuffles along.

Gladys stops when she sees a hospital cart with a half-eaten tray of food standing in the middle of the hallway. She glares as if it has insulted her. She heaves an exasperated harrumph, seizes the cart, and pushes it up against the wall where it belongs. Then she continues her march. She’s the drill sergeant around here, I think.

I go back to the others in the common room.

“She do that all the time?” I ask.

Mom nods. “Yeah. That’s her thing. She paces up and down the hall and turns the lights out each time she sees a switch. My guess is that she’s reliving the years when her kids were young and left the lights on. See that woman over there?”

I see a woman wearing dress shoes and a long furry trench coat. She’s holding a clutch purse. Her hair is done up nicely and she wears makeup. She checks her watch.

“Her name is Myrtle but she insists you call her Mrs. Schmitz,” Mom said. “She was once a school teacher. Everyday she gets dressed up as if she’s heading off to school. One day we were visiting Mom and Mrs. Schmitz walked in and shooed us away. She said, ‘My students will be here any moment. You must leave the classroom now.’”

I laughed. “What’d you do?”

“What could we do? We grabbed Mom and left.”

“So many personalities here,” I say.

“And if you come often enough, you learn to appreciate each one.”

I turn to Grandma and take her hand in mine. “How are you doing, Grandma?”

She looks at me and waves of fear cross her face. “Who are you?” she asks and pulls her hand away.

“I’m Greg, Grandma. I’m Deanna’s son.”

“Mom, you remember Little Greggie. He’s all grown up now and has his own children. This is Taylor and Rachel. They’re your great grandkids.”

The girls look at Grandma Hoover and then to me. They’re afraid.

I smile and mouth to the girls, “It’s OK.”

A glimmer of recognition comes to Grandma’s eyes. “Greg?” she says and smiles weakly.

The lights go out again.

Somebody somewhere yells, “Gladys! Turn the lights back on!”

Alzheimer’s: The Damnable Thief

Alzheimer’s is a horrible, unrepentant Thief. He begins by stealing your short-term memory. You forget names and important days. You repeat stories. He forces you to throw away the soup because you lost your place in the recipe and added two more tablespoons of oregano.

Then he robs you of the ability to tend to yourself. You leave the stove on. You forget to bathe and wash your clothes. You find your missing slipper in the refrigerator.

He’s laughing now as he jumbles your thoughts. You forget where you are and how you got there. You lose things and blame those closest to you. “Where is that twenty dollars I left on the table? You stole it, didn’t you? It’s mine, I tell you, give it back!”

When he’s finished taking, he starts giving. Terrible things. Confusion, depression, fear, anxiety. And when his work is nearly complete, he leaves you with one final, malevolent gift: paranoia. And then he’s gone, off to terrorize his next victim.

Now you are utterly alone, because he’s convinced you that everyone means you harm; your children, your friends, your caretaker, everyone.

Helping Grandma Find Peace, Even if Fleeting

I know people who refuse to visit a family member in the nursing home. They say it’s too difficult to see Grandpa that way. They’d prefer to remember him the way he was, not the way he is now. They mention the sights and smells and it disturbs them.

I understand those sentiments. But I believe it’s a mistake not to go.

In many cases, the person you love is still in there. You just need to learn how to draw them out. It’s our job to reach into their confusion and help them find the familiar through a story, a song, or a pleasant memory.

We learned that in order to pull Grandma Hoover out of the fog, all we needed to do was to ask about her childhood. She’d look away, going back in time. Then she’d smile and begin describing what she saw.

She told stories of ice skating on Terwilliger’s pond and playing in the haymow with her brothers and sister. She spoke of thrashing parties when the men of the county came together to help one another bring in the crops while she and the other young girls helped the women prepare a meal of dumplings and fried chicken and apple crumb pies. She told us about the Victory Gardens she grew during World War II and how her oldest sons Jack and Dick sold tomatoes, radishes, and onions door-to-door while she walked to the corner grocery to trade some fresh vegetables for a soup bone.

She remembered her childhood with remarkable detail. We kept asking questions for as long as she was willing to talk, because when the stories stopped, the fear returned.

And we sang songs.

“Hey, Grandma, you remember this one, don’t you?”

Smile the while, you kiss me sad adieu.
When the clouds roll by, I’ll come to you.

She smiled and joined us in the singing.

Then the skies will seem more blue
Down in Lover’s Lane, my dearie.

Wedding bells will ring so merrily
Ev’ry tear will be a memory
So wait and pray each night for me
Till we meet again.

Not a lyric was lost on her. And she sang in perfect harmony.

Music brought Grandma back to us. So, we sang often.

Unexpected Humor

While Alzheimer’s is difficult, it is not without it’s humorous moments.

Dedee’s grandmother was Beulah Goebel, but people called her “Granny Bill.” She developed dementia in her 80s. One day, Dedee’s mother Ann dropped in unannounced for a visit. As Ann walked into the living room, she saw Granny Bill cradling one of her couch pillows as if it were a newborn. Ann stopped and listened as Granny spoke softly to the pillow.

“Well, you are a sweet little baby. And so beautiful, too.” She paused slightly, staring at the pillow. “Yes, you are a lovely baby. But you sort of remind me of my couch.”

The Kind of Love that Alzheimer’s Requires

Dementia imprisons a person in a cage of the unfamiliar. lt’s our duty to release them, to push aside our discomfort in order to bring them a moment or two of peace.

It was tough at times with Grandma Hoover. In her fear and confusion, she often lashed out. Mom was her primary caretaker, so naturally she caught the brunt of it. I watched Mom in those moments and marveled. She’d smile, lean forward and stroke Grandma’s eyebrows, and say, “It’s OK, Mom. I know you don’t mean that.”

And then they sang together, mother and daughter.

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

In her infirmity, Grandma continued to teach us. She taught us patience and perseverance and how to love someone regardless of their ability to love you back.

It’s a lesson that’ll take me a lifetime or more to perfect. But I’m glad she taught me to try.

“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky


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