I haven’t had to spend much time in nursing homes. I have nothing against them personally. My reaction to them can be traced to my first visit to one when I went to see a schizophrenic great aunt in a home in rural Minnesota. Psychiatric hospital circa late 1970s middle of nowhere. Can you picture it?
Like virtually every other element of our lives, 35 years has brought great advances to how nursing home residents are care for. Everything from the décor in the hallways to the training of the staff has improved. Yet, when I went to visit a patient in Bay Ridge two weeks ago, I felt my heart beating faster, my breathing got shallow, and I had to stop myself from having a full-blown anxiety attack in the hallway. All those feelings from the lobby of the facility in Shakopee, MN returned in a relentless torrent. I was immediately directed to the rehab wing, which was instantly brighter, more modern, and better smelling than the first building. It was the difference between Dorothy in Kansas and Dorothy in Oz, only this was Bay Ridge and the distance was maybe 1,000 feet.
When I arrived at my patient’s door, I made a few observations. There was not one but two elderly women who were not particularly responsive. I checked the wrist bands to make sure I was with the right patient. I also saw a blue-bagged New York Times with my patient’s name on it. In fact, there were two. Since this was a vigil visit, meaning the patient was actively dying, I made a note to let the social worker know that the subscription should be canceled.
I haven’t had a patient since “Hazel” died in August. As I picked up the weak, but very soft and well moisturized hand of my patient, I was overcome with sadness that she may very well die alone. It had been months since I had been in the presence of someone so sick, so weak, so helpless. I could be present for this woman, but I felt like I belonged on the JV squad; I was not ready for prime time. I did not expect to feel so out of practice after years of working with the sick, but I really felt like I was starting at square one. I watched “Doris” breathe, and meditated with her, understanding on some level that she would not necessarily know that I was feeling gun shy.
I stayed for 90 minutes, and wished her an easy journey. I left eager to breathe in the fresh air on that sunny Saturday. I noticed on my Google map the presence of an Italian bakery three blocks away. I bought four cannoli and walked to the subway, wrapped up in my new insecurities.
Thank you for your honesty about how you felt going into the nursing home. Even though there have been advances in the care provided in nusring homes and even the decor, nursing homes and even some assisted living facilities can make people feel uneasy and out of place, not a place that I want to end up.— Eric Francis / March 20th, 2012 at 10:25 am