My World Now
Life in a nursing home, from the inside
By Anna Mae Halgrim Seaver
"This is my world now. It's all I have left. You see, I'm old. And I'm not as healthy as I used to be. I'm not necessarily happy with it but I accept it. Occasionally, a member of my family will stop in to see me. He or she will bring me some flowers or a little present, maybe a set of slippers - I've got 8 pair. We'll visit for awhile and then they will return to the outside world and I'll be alone again.
Oh, there are other people here in the nursing home. Residents, we're called. The majority are about my age. I'm 84. Many are in wheelchairs. The lucky ones are passing through - a broken hip, a diseased heart, something has brought them here for rehabilitation. When they're well they'll be going home.
Most of us are aware of our plight - some are not. Varying stages of Alzheimer's have robbed several of their mental capacities. We listen to endlessly repeated stories and questions. We meet them anew daily, hourly or more often. We smile and nod gracefully each time we hear a retelling. They seldom listen to my stories, so I've stopped trying.
The help here is basically good, although there is a large turnover. Just when I get comfortable with someone he or she moves on to another job. I understand that. This in not the best job to have .
I don't much like some of the physical things that happen to us. I don't care much for a diaper. I seem to have lost the control so diligently acquired as a child. The difference is that I am aware and embarrassed but I can't do anything about it. I've had 3 children and I know it isn't pleasant to clean another's diaper. My husband used to wear a gas mask when he changed the kids. I wish I had one now.
Why do you think the staff insists on talking baby talk when speaking to me? I understand English. I have a degree in music and am a certified teacher. Now I hear a lot of words that end in "y". Is this how my kids felt? My hearing aid works fine. There is little need for anyone to position their face directly in front of mine and raise their voice with those "y" words. Sometimes it takes longer for a meaning to sink in; sometimes my wanders when I am bored. But there is no need to shout.
I tried once or twice to make my feelings known. I even shouted once. That gained me the reputation of being "crotchety." Imagine me, crotchety. My children never heard me raise my voice. I surprised myself. After I've asked for help more than a dozen times and received nothing more than a dozen condescending smiles and a "Yes, deary, I'm working on it," something begins to break. That time I wanted to be taken to the bathroom.
I'd love to go out for a meal, to travel again. I'd love to go to my own church, sing with my own choir. I'd love to visit my friends. Most of them are gone now or else they are in different "homes" of their children's choosing. I'd love to play a good game of bridge but no one here seems to concentrate very well.
My children put me here for my own good. The said they would be able to visit me frequently. But they have their own lives to lead. That sounds normal. I don't want to be a burden. They know that. But I would like to see them more often. One of them is here in town. He visits as much as he can.
Something else I've learned to accept is my loss of privacy. Quite often I'll close my door when my roommate - imagine having a roommate at my age - is in the TV room. I do appreciate some time to myself and believe that I have earned at least that courtesy. As I sit thinking or writing, one of the aides invariable opens the door unannounced and walks in as if I'm not there. Sometimes she even opens my drawers and beings rummaging around. Am I invisible? Have I lost my right to respect and dignity? What would happen if the roles were reversed? I am still a human being. I would like to be treated like one.
The meals are not what I would choose for myself. We get variety but we don't get a choice. I am one of the more fortunate ones who can still handle utensils. I remember eating of such cheap utensils in the Great Depression. I worked hard so I would not ever have to use them again. But here I am.
Did you ever sit in a wheelchair over an extended period of time? It's not comfortable. The seat squeezes you in the middle and applies constant pressure to your hips. The armrests are too narrow and my arms slip off. I am luckier than some. Others are strapped into their chairs and abandoned in front of the TV. Captive prisoners of daytime soap opera, talk shows and commercials.
One of the residents died today. He was a loner who, at one time, started a business and developed a multimillion-dollar company. His children moved him here when he could no longer control his bowels. He didn't talk to most of us. He often snapped at the aides as if they were his employees. But he just gave up; willed his own demise. The staff has made up his room and another man has moved in.
A typical day. Awakened by the woman in the next bed wheezing - a former chain smoker with asthma. Call an aide to wash me and place me in my wheelchair to wait for breakfast. Only 67 minutes until breakfast. I'll wait. Breakfast in the dining area. Most of the residents are in wheelchairs. Others use canes or walkers. Some sit and wonder what they are waiting for. First meal of the day. Only 3 hours and 28 minutes until lunch. Maybe I'll sit around and wait for it. What is today? One day blends into the next until day and date mean nothing.
Let's watch a little TV. Oprah and Phil and Geraldo and who cares if some transvestite is having trouble picking a color-coordinated wardrobe from his husband's girlfriend's mother's collection. Lunch. Can't wait. Dried something with pureed peas and coconut pudding. No wonder I'm losing weight.
Back to my semiprivate room for a little semiprivacy or a nap. I do need my beauty rest, company may come today. What is today, again? The afternoon drags into early evening. The used to be my favorite time of the day. Things would wind down. I would kick off my shoes. Put my feet up on the coffee table. Pop open a bottle of Chablis and enjoy the fruits of my day's labor with my husband. He's gone. So is my health. This is my world.
SEAVER, who lived in Wauwatosa, Wis., died in March. Her son found these notes in her room after her death.
This article was originally published in Newsweek, June 27, 1994