Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Nursing Home Characters

My father is in a gorgeous facility, up above Los Altos Hills, that includes villas for independent living, apartments for those needing assistance, and the skilled nursing center where he is now installed. I have to admit that there are times, lately, when the place reminds me of the Noel Coward play Waiting in the Wings, which I saw in a revival on Broadway a few years ago, starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris.

That play is about a nursing home for actresses in which stars fade but old rivalries never die.

Or, to put it another way, Coward points out that people are just as petty and dysfunctional when they are old and sick as they are when they are young and healthy. Only more so.

The place where my father in ensconced proudly announces on its gate that it is a "Smoke Free Facility." And it makes me laugh when I see that, because almost every day I see this cadaverous old man sitting in his car in the parking lot, smoking away, his car door open and his head ducked down beneath the door. In spite of what he imagines, he is not invisible.

There is the old woman I'll call Mrs. Anglo, down the hall from my father, who has only recently taken to speaking in Spanish, with a very bad accent. It seems she learned Spanish as a child from a maid, didn't speak it at all during the next eight decades and now, seeing the international cast staffing all the jobs at the nursing home, has suddenly begun speaking to all of them in Spanish. Fortunately, some members of the staff can usually understand her.

She has another odd habit I forgot to mention to my sister the first night she came to dinner with my Dad and me at the nursing home. About mid-asparagus, my sister got a funny look on her face and I turned and saw Mrs. Anglo shaking her finger at my sister. She never said anything, not even in Spanish.

"I forgot to tell you about that," I said. "She scolds people."

There is another woman who always goes to the dining room alone. I suspect no one will sit with her. Every five minutes or so she calls out, "Help!" and then sits quietly for another four minutes and fifty-nine seconds until out pops "Help!" again. One night she did it a lot more than usual and they had to call a security guard.

My father's doctors have told us that his time is very limited, but the amazing thing about him is that he looks robust, says he has no pain, and is eating everything that isn't nailed down.

Today, however, when the physical therapists tried to get him to stand, he told them he just didn't want to. He was clearly able to do it. He said he felt we didn't understand how sick he was. Believe me, we understand. I've been up there for hours every single day, understanding.

"We know," I said. "We just want to see if you can get going a little. It will be good for you." But he just kept complaining and we finally took him back to his room.

It has been a contest, for the past couple of weeks, between my father and my mother as to which one of them is the most ill. Even last year, when my father was in the hospital with a broken vertebrae, my mother came down with pneumonia. I'm not saying she intended it, but there you are.

This last month, now that my father is in nursing care and getting tons of attention, my mother has had various illnesses that have kept her from visiting. She had nearly fatal stomach flu for a while and now her back is giving her nearly terminal pain. I hate to make fun of it, but the coincidence is worth noting.

Sometimes I can't decide which of them is the more spoiled.

Which brings me, I suppose, to the famous five stages of grief, first delineated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. To wit: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

I think we can fairly say I'm in the anger stage, and usually that brings me to try to see the funny side of things, in order to dissipate my anger. Which reminds of me of a line Lauren Bacall says in Waiting in the Wings: "I'm just bristling with olive branches."

Its hard to be a good daughter-caregiver when you're bristling. With anything. And that is part of the process, too, I guess. Like the old guy smoking in the parking lot, we bring all our baggage with us to aging and dying and caregiving and sometimes, carrying it around is a very heavy load.

Makes me understand, completely, why that lady cries "help" every five minutes. I only wonder she pauses so long between cries.

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Devon C. said...

Stress shows up in different ways. So maybe it's just the way G's body is reacting to the stress and worry.

Robin Chapman said...

I think you're right and I think today I was just angry at them both for being sick! I wanted them to both get well and stop bothering me!

Jon Gnagy's Portfolio said...

Your entries are so tender, Robin. You write with great sensitivity and a perceptive eye for detail. I look forward to each one. Your insights are a great gift to the rest of us. Thank you! Our love to you and your family during these trying days. Thad (and Polly, too)

Robin Chapman said...

Sometimes I have to write about what is going on so that I can understand it. Yesterday when I wrote I was so tired of sick people, and today my understanding returned in a rush. Ah what a process!

Jon Gnagy's Portfolio said...

Thanks for your note on the Jon Gnagy website Guestbook. Some time ago I set up the "Jon Gnagy's Portfolio" blog, intending (as I still do) to have a more flexible (and contemporary) outlet for news and information about Jonnie. I still plan to get around to it, since the webpage is nearly fifteen years (!) old. I updated it a few years ago to add the YouTube lessons, but otherwise it is the same as it was in 1996, when I constructed it with HTML. I have tried to establish another "handle" for leaving comments on your blog ("Florida Seymours"), but I can't get that to work. It keeps coming back to "Jon Gnagy's Portfolio." I finally gave up.

Robin Chapman said...

It is kind of interesting to have JGn as your "comment identity." I've been trying to figure out how to link my two pages into one for Google Analytics, but one day I put in the HTML code to do that and my analytics report didn't work at all. There are always quirks in these programs. Anyway I enjoyed reading the different pieces on your Site about Polly's father.

Florida Seymours said...

Thanks for your advice about the Name/URL button. Let's see if THIS works!

Thad said...

By George, we've got it. I guess I assumed that we had to include our webpage (which is Jon Gnagy, of course). But now I see that it says "optional." As I used to tell my students: "Read the instructions!"

Robin Chapman said...

Hey, that is great! I had a break between caregiving assignments ("Hey! I'm sick! Feed me!" "No, over here! I'm sicker! Go to the store for ME!") and I played with the comment section a bit to see what was wrong with it, as another friend told me she was having trouble too. I think the answer is that it needs simplifying. But at least we've come up with a temporary solution. (The "choose an identity" list is always a bit of a challenge: hmm, I wonder what that means? Didn't know I had choices. Think I'll be Penelope Cruz today.)

Errant Aesthete said...

Stumbled (don't we all) my way to here. What a moving tribute to what must be a heart rendering time for you. I'm afraid, under the circumstances, I would stay locked in the second stage of grief.

Feel the need to mention, too, the synchronized lament of "help." It's as though she's taken on an honesty and authenticity that manners and etiquette once denied her.

Several years in LA, I was in a facility much like what you describe, when I took a friend to the Motion Picture facility out in Woodland Hills, I think it was, for an emergency treatment on her eye. I could literally feel the memories and nostalgia from all these shriveled little bodies being wheeled about. People, who, in their heyday, appeared before and behind cameras as actors, producers, stage hands, lighting technicians, etc. What stories they could tell.

My thoughts go out to you.

Robin Chapman said...

Thanks for your comments EA. I often look at the old people around me as I help my Dad with his breakfast and think, "There goes a woman who was a model once, and there, a man who saved lives as a doctor, and there, a couple who escaped the Holocaust and who now cry for help from the nurses." It has been sobering to realize that we all end up as wrecks ... and that all our stuff ceases to be important. More reason than ever to live one's life with no regrets ... so I'm lucky that I've been able to be here and resolve so many of my own difficulties with my parents in this final act of their lives.