A few weeks back, my wife’s grandfather turned 92 years old and in honor of that rather impressive achievement, we took the baby with us to pay him a visit in the nursing home. This is where I need to be completely up front and honest – I don’t do well with nursing homes. Hospitals are not up there on my favorite list either, but nursing homes have a way of just sending me into an orbit of fear and depression.
I don’t care how much of a fact of life it is, I don’t want to get old. I know, I know. It happens to all of us. I’m not talking about getting older though. I mean getting old. So old that you can no longer care for yourself.
Just as we arrived at the Nursing Home, we took an elevator to the floor where her grandfather is currently staying. As the elevator doors shut, I caught sight of a group of elderly people, some in chairs, some in wheelchairs, their heads sagging down to their chest, expressionless, sitting around in a semi-circle in front of a large television, while the Today Show with Hoda and Kathie Lee played on. Obviously rounded up by the staff for some ‘entertainment,’ these people were sitting there, those images of the TV flashing before them and a look of lifelessness on their faces.
“This is going to be tough,” I thought.
When we got to her grandfather’s room, he was not there yet. He was still down the hall with her mom. When he made his way down via walker, he plopped himself into a chair and his face lit up at the sight of the baby. Hey, who can resist the smiling laughs of a one year old. To see him laughing, playing peekaboo, and dancing in his chair just to entertain our little guy – my heart melted. Our little man was actually making this man’s day.
As Meg, her mom and her grandfather all talked and the baby laughed, I looked around the room. Photos of family and friends – some long gone, others relegated to an occasional visit. A stack of books on top of a cart that sat next to a motorized bed. At the bottom of the cart sat boxes upon boxes of denture hygiene products.
The smell in the air was funny – I can’t put my finger on it, but if you’ve ever been in a nursing home, you know what I mean.
Another man, several years older – late 90s, I believe – wheeled himself in at some point. Talking rather loudly (he can’t hear well, we’re told), he wheeled himself up to her grandfather’s face to ask why he wasn’t at the dinner table. Then, the conversation veered off about their pills and the man then wheeled off, saying he’d look for him at the next meal. The fellow was concerned about him, which was nice to see. This is what friendship is when in a home, I thought.
As we left, wishing her grandfather a Happy Birthday, he asked if he could have a bath for it. And my heart broke.
Here is a man of the Greatest Generation. A man who fought at Iwo Jima, now unable to move without a walker, wearing sweatpants, talking about pills and asking if he could bathe for his birthday.
I wanted to cry.
I know this is life, but it’s not fair. How can people so strong, so full of pep and leadership, pillars of our society, become so weak, so dependent? Why must they lose control of their own bodies and need to wear diapers, be cleaned by others, wait for someone to change or clean their own bed sheets?! Argh! It just…it frustrates me so much that this happens in life and yet, it happens to so many.
We have one neighbor who is 91 and another who is 95. Just within the past few weeks, the 95 year old took a fall that brought ambulances, police and firefighters to his home. His family doesn’t think he can live on his own anymore and when I see the lights of his home dark while they bring him from family member to family member, deciding what to do next, my heart sinks again.
So many people say they want to live forever. Not me. I don’t ever want to reach that point. When I can’t take care of myself, when I, a person who pretty much has to take a shower every day or it mentally haunts me, can’t keep myself clean, I want to call it a day.
It just leads my mind down a path that becomes too overwhelming to handle or comprehend. It means that one day my own parents are going to get old, a thought I suppress whenever it hits and just have trouble handling. One day I will be old, as will my wife. Will we be old together? Will I be around when she gets there? Where will our little guy be in life when it happens? What kind of a relationship will we have? Will he still be my buddy? Will he be on good terms with his parents? The relationship between my father and his parents fell apart decades ago and never ever recovered, to the point of non-speaking. It’s very easy to say ‘this is different,’ ‘we’re not them,’ but let’s face reality – we all carry with us the traits of our parents, grandparents, ancestors, etc, whether we like it or not. We also ALL have the potential to love or hurt those around us, be they family or friends. How does that factor into equation as life continues? Would my little monkey, all grown up, even want to take care of us, or is our future that of the weird smell in the air, the shouting about pills and just wanting to have your dignity back?
I know it sounds horrible, but for all their sakes (my wife, my son, any other children we may have between now and then), I hope it never comes to that. I don’t mind getting older, but when all dignity is gone, I have a hard time envisioning a life that’s being lived.
Yes, this post was filled with fear, dread, some slight paranoia, and some ranting. I know. Sorry about that.