Visit to a Nursing Home

Vignettes of life in an institution

Two of my old friends are in the same nursing home, so visiting them each month is a two-for-one event for me. As I walked into the entryway, a middle-aged man in a wheelchair sat with his head hung low. My friends often complain of my coming and going like a ghost, and I wore soft-soled shoes that day, so he did not lift his head when I walked past him.

The Home is pleasant enough, with a reception desk where we must sign in. A woman greeted me and went on with her paper work. On Sundays, the corridors clutter with patients as family and friends push wheelchairs to the TV room, or to lunch then back again to rooms. Every patient must use a provided wheelchair, whether needed or not. Nurse’s aides are busy folding towels, doing medications, cleaning bathrooms, and such.

I noted the residents are mostly women, shrunken caricatures of what they must have been in youth, now pallid as ash, some with their mouths hanging open, staring down a corridor with vacant eyes. One woman was sitting across from the central nurse’s station, mouthing something I could hardly hear. I leaned over and heard, “Help me, help” repeated like a broken record. Help her, how? With the ravages of old age, or maybe with her loneliness or her feelings of imprisonment? Maybe she does not want to be here but wants to live in her own home.

***

I arrived at Room 304 and Della was there, sitting in her wheelchair watching the Strongest Man in the World. I lowered the volume so we could chat.

In our discussions a while back, she would paint the Church as hypocritical and evil. She would say it is unworthy of an “intelligent man” like me to swallow its ritual tripe and rush to its unmerited defense. She told me of her Protestant ministry, and her becoming agnostic after all the clergy sex-abuse scandals hit the news. “How can a just God allow priests to sexually abuse children in this world, or let millions of them go homeless, starving and dying in the streets?”

Della had managed childcare centers and singly raised three fine children, now grown and happily married. A fiery playwright, having written and produced over 20 plays, she became an official judge at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. She even helped me polish my play, Honor Killing. She managed in her eighties to sustain our local writing critique group, going back some 20 years, and as recently as nine months ago was hobbling in to join us every Tuesday. But not anymore.

“They won’t let me try to walk. They keep me confined to a wheelchair. I think it’s how they seduce me into thinking I can’t function without them so they can get government money. And they feed me crap that’s making me worse.” She said that a few months back when she could talk.

Now she mostly mumbles. My hearing is slowly fading, so it’s a double whammy. We can’t communicate like we used to, not even to challenge each other with contrary theological views. Her eyes tell me she’s still sharp-witted, but her lips can no longer convey intelligibly what she wants to say. Years ago when she was home, feeding herself a decent diet with some food supplements, it was nonstop discussions between us. Her rapid deterioration here has been startling.

I told Della news of our writing group. About an hour later, a rehab nurse arrived to place an expansion device in Della’s right hand, now tightly cramped in a fist. Muscles need magnesium to relax but she hadn’t been taking any.

I was lying on her bed, my ear close to her lips, hoping to hear better while she talked from her wheelchair. The nurse chuckled when Della suggested we were having an affair. We all laughed, much amused by her witty sense of humor. Then I said goodbye and walked to see Don.

***

I found Don in the TV room. He is a former military psychologist who once rehabbed PTSD snipers tortured by nightmares of what by-the-book Vietnam Army officers ordered them to do. He says he also helped after Vatican II to alter the design of clergy robes and frocks for greater visual effect. “I think it compensated for their fading self-esteem,” he said.

Nowadays, a persistent Protestant couple visits him. They claim that the ever-corrupt Catholic Church is unworthy of him. So he follows their denomination’s Sunday service on TV. We used to talk at length about Catholic philosophy and religion. He was able to speak back then but not anymore.

He and Della know each other from our weekly soirees at a local playhouse. Don rolls in to say hello to Della, but neither can talk much like old times so they gaze at each other in silence.

I wheeled him outside and picked a purple pollen daisy that he pocketed. Then we returned to the shade and sat a while in silence until I couldn’t bear it any longer. I took him back to his room and faced him toward the TV with clicker in hand.

He thanked me for visiting, in a few words surprisingly audible. He has no family now, a couple of friends, and only what little remains of his memories to keep him company.

***

My dad died in 1993 at age 75 of congestive heart failure — a quick, painless death while he slept. I am 77 now and may have to put up with many years of witnessing America the Beautiful deteriorate. Maybe I’ll end up here too. If anyone visits me, will I be able to speak coherently? Will the fragments of the person I was, the portions of me lost to dementia, be kept safe and sound in cloud storage for the Last Judgment?

Perhaps writing this essay helps me muster appreciation for what health remains before my life enters its seventh stage: sans teeth, sans sight… sans everything. Perhaps it’s a therapeutic way to inure my soul to the dreaded, horrendous throes of death that all creation must face.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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