Health & Medical Self-Improvement

Coming to Face Myself at the Nursing Home

A Nursing Home is..
...
"The worst possible option.
" "As good as being dead"...
"Something no one wants to think about.
" These common and understandable statements, like a journey through the circles of Dante's hell, can lead one to even more unsettling reflections, when confronted with the reality that it is one's own relative in need of care: "He would have never wanted to be here...
" "That's just not him," "It's not the way I want to remember her" It's not the way they would want to be remembered.
" "I can't stand to see him like that.
" "It's just too sad.
" Circling in these ideas, I come closer to the hard knot of a truth: Seeing myself in my elder, what if I had to be the one in the home? That is something that is almost impossible to imagine, heavy with loss, and even the loss of possibility.
Such considerations may keep kin away from visiting family members when the feelings are so tender and raw.
I am reminded of my own loss, for I am saddened to see that my relative has changed from how, and even, who, they had been in relation to me.
A Buddhist monk from Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hahn, draws attention to these very kind of thoughts and fears in his version of the Buddha's teaching called "The Five Remembrances:" 1) I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
2) I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.
3) I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
4) All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5) My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
For Hanh and other Buddhist teachers, the contemplation of these realities, which we all know are true, but attempt to push away, combined with the practice of meditation may bring equanimity, compassion for others, and a greater ability to see beyond our own feelings to the situations before us - In this case, a relative who is ill and in a nursing home.
It doesn't come as a great surprise and shock, that these are the things that happen to human beings, because these elements are the nature of life.
I have noticed by happenstance, after many visits to the Nursing Home, my attention shifts.
It must be like descending in a diving bell, or adjusting to any different environment.
The eyes starts to notice different things.
In the same way one's eyes adjust to a darkened landscape by embracing the ambient light; I notice that the people who live there, whom I've seen many times in the hall, - the man or woman in the wheelchair with head hanging over, whom I had simply considered "out of it", or others whom I have averted my eyes from - aren't actually captured by my impressions.
My father's room mate who stares at the ceiling blankly, whom I thought was not aware, turns his head slowly, looks at me, and smiles for the first time, when I say "Good Morning Sir", after many visits.
I have to recognize that the sadness that I feel in these circumstances is my own, and as much as I try not to acknowledge these feelings, I am also disabled by them in my own ability to see and to relate.
These are my feelings, which are not what that person in front of me in the hall is experiencing today.
And that person, however their functioning may be compromised is still here.
There are actually a range of reactions that are possible to Long Term Care.
For my own father, who initially struggled in his first days, there has been a consistent and unexpected response: Song.
Even through hospital stays and hospice, he belted out the show tunes, the loves songs, and Frank Sinatra, to soothe himself.
Somehow he has been able to maintain a twinkle in his eye and his smile, through the other experiences that come with illness and aging.
I remember a time in the first few months of his admission to the Nursing Home, when he was stricken with a bout of serial diarrhea: You could hear him singing through the bathroom door, crooning while cleaning, rather than awaiting for help.
This is why perhaps I have heard so many aides remark of him: "What a cute man!" or even "I love that man!" Even now, when there is not much that he can do for himself being wheelchair bound, he continues to sing.
As I live another state, he will sometimes even sing to me over the phone.
A few nights ago he offered this folk tune, and I was surprised by the verse: "Hang down your head Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry, hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor boy your going to die!" He offered this with enthusiasm, and without self pity, but it is clear the direction of his thoughts, and that he wanted to share them with me.
Research has shown that music and art can be a way to access different parts of the brain and even memory for individuals whose brains are disorganized by illness.
What I have observed, and also what studies bear out, that there is more going on for someone than they may be able to show.
Being able to express oneself on whatever level, and to have someone listen, seems critical for this stage of life.
But for people with dementia, stroke, brain injury, and Alzheimer's it can be doubly challenging both for their own physiologic obstacles, and the emotional response and possible withdrawal of family.
While my father has a mild dementia, it has been shown that it is even possible to use these mediums to connect with people who have more severe symptoms.
If you read these pages, you will most likely hear this writer promote the idea that kin be advocates and watchdogs for their relatives in the Nursing Home.
Not everyone is going to be able to do this, given time, responsibilities and the emotional toll.
Equally important is maintaining a connection with elders, understanding as well that history, relationships, and the elder's character bear on this as well.
If your relative is unhappy, it may be hard to not feel responsible, even if you know you are not.
But there may be still someway to connect despite disability and past or present misunderstanding.
It is possible that once one has crossed a few times through the nursing home corridor and through one's own conflicted feelings, that a visit to a Nursing Home may be an opportunity to arrive in the place, and share a living spontaneous moment with a relative, something that I wouldn't have wanted to otherwise miss.
I am not thinking of of them for who they were, or who they are not now, or of what they have lost.
I am still making this journey with my parents through good days and bad days.
And as to my father, it is possible, Maybe still...
he will go out when he is ready, singing.
See also: ( Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices)


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