My father is currently in a “rehab/assisted living facility.” I’m grateful beyond words that he’s leaving before the weekend, because he does not belong there. He spends his days and nights holed up in a 12′ x 12′ room, only leaving for physical therapy, because facing the grim reality of the hallways is just too depressing. There’s a faded bulletin board proudly announcing “Chef Jackie’s Special Butterscotch Pancakes” on Tuesday and a “Shopping Outing!” on Thursday, but the false excitement injected into these “special” events makes both of us cringe. My question is: Does anyone belong in this place?
This facility’s sign might mention rehab, but the truth is that my dad’s twenty years younger than anyone else in the building, and the thing most of those people suffer from can’t be treated.
It’s old age.
It’s a debilitating mixture of dementia and assorted physical ailments.
But most of all, it’s despair.
As I chatted with my dad last night over his tray of boiled chicken, a man down the hall began crying out. Over and over he rasped, “HELP! … Someone please help! …We’re trapped – help us, PLEASE!”
The nurse on call reassured us that every time she checks on this patient, he and his roommate are both safe in bed. My father murmured, “Poor guy – no one told him the war is over.” I pictured a frail, wizened grandfather curled up in a foxhole, hopelessly seeking a way out for himself and his wounded comrade. As far as I know, he feels exactly that desperate. Does he understand he’s in a nursing home? Is he trying to escape the smell of canned vegetables and bed pans, or is he fighting something none of us can see?
I am not bashing the staff at this facility. They’re kind and responsive, and the building is clean and has sunny patios lined with flowerpots. My father even says the food is all right. And I know that places like this can be a saving grace for families. When my maternal grandmother was deep, deep inside her battle with Alzheimer’s and both my parents had run out of leave at work, they placed her in a similar “home.” It let my mom keep her job. It let our family release a breath we’d been collectively holding for months. Sometimes life just plays out so even the best choice – the right choice – feels wrong.
And yet… I can’t help but think there must be a better way for people to unwind the spool of their last days on Earth. I don’t think it’s a simple question of money. Even in luxury facilities, it’s a sad farce to pretend the blank-faced lost souls filling wheelchairs might recover their zest for life through “Sparkle Manicure Mondays.” I suppose I still agree with my eighth grade self, who stood alone and supported people’s right to euthanasia during a class debate. Or, as my mom puts it, “If I ever get close to that point, I’ll just walk into the woods and disappear.” There’s simply a state beyond which a person isn’t really living. I think some people are just waiting to die, and making them wait seems cruel.
Yesterday, the big excitement was Mr. Murphy’s attempted joy ride. My parents were rocking on the front porch when a man in a rumpled bathrobe wandered by, scanning the cars. My mom knew something was amiss and stepped inside to find a nurse. Mr. Murphy was quickly recovered as he stood beside a beige Buick, fumbling in his pocket for imaginary keys. As two attendants led him led back inside, he complained to my father:
“I don’t know why they won’t let me drive.”