I walked into the cheerful, rather narrow halls of the care center. It didn’t smell of feces and urine like many I had been in. Up to the hill from where I walked in, was a small dining room. Some of the residents were sitting there. I found out later that they were waiting for dinner. It was two in the afternoon. They don’t eat until five-thirty. “I’ll just wait”, said one resident who sat in a wheelchair, watching people walking by. She called all the nurses by name. She had been here a while, I imagine. I traveled down the hall to the room of my friend. She was lying in bed, reading a book. The room is small, two beds, two dressers and two nightstands in this room are a tight squeeze.
My friend has many pictures of loved ones on the wall. “I can’t remember who they all are, so my daughter pasted those little name tags under each of the pictures.” She explains. Her roommate is not so lucky. No pictures of loved ones adorn her walls. She has very few living relatives and none close. I sit down to talk with my friend. “How are you doing?” I ask her. I haven’t seen her in a while. “ Oh, about the same. Same thing every day.” My friend says. We fill the air with some more conversation. My friend loves to talk. She enjoys sharing stories of her life. She has many to share.
“Y’know, I survived the great fire of 36’” she tells me. She has short-term memory loss and she knows it.
I have heard her stories before. I don’t mind hearing them again. Someday, I will miss hearing them and treasure each time that I did. We get to talk about some “girl talk” stuff. My friend loves to talk “girl talk”. My friend says she feels like we’re sisters. I agree. I ask my friend how she likes it here. She has lived here for three years.
“Oh, it’s all right I guess. It’s not home. I’d rather be home” she tells me.
What’s the best thing about being here? I ask her.
“Having somebody to take care of you. If something goes wrong, if you have an “accident” or anything, somebody is here to help you. But, it takes them so darn long to get to you. Sometimes I wonder if it really matters to have the nurses here at all.” She tells me.
What do you think they could do to make it better for you here?
“Hire more nurses! The nurses are always saying that they are short-handed. That they’ve got too many people to take care of and not enough of them to go around. But, the nurses say that when the money gets tight, the extra nurses are the first to go. Most of the time in the evening and at night, there are only two nurses here.
I get sick of waiting for someone to come change me. I think nurses should have a union. If they don’t hire enough or pay them very much, they should strike!” My friend says. But, that would mean that until things were settled, there’d be no nurses for you, I tell her.
“ Yes, maybe. But, at least something would change. Right now, it’s the same old thing; “Not enough nurses! Too short-handed! Not enough time!”
If you could run the nursing home for a week, what would you do differently? I ask her.
“I wouldn’t want to run this place. I wouldn’t want to be president, either. Too much responsibility. You’re never going to make everybody happy. I know that. But, I’d have more nurses. And I wouldn’t have grumpy ones either. Y’know, ones with problems. That one girl that worked here, her husband was on drugs. She was so nasty all the time. Poor girl, I know that must’ve been terrible for her. But still…and I’d PAY the nurses more, too. Most of these girls said they don’t make enough to make ends meet. Then they get mad about that. That’s not my problem. But, when they are so gruff with you; that’s my problem….”
Have nurses ever been gruff with you? I ask.
“Oh, you get them sometimes that are gruff. I guess it can’t be avoided. Some people are just like that.”
What do you do when a nurse gets gruff with you? I ask.
“What can you do? Just ignore them if you can till they go away. I try not to ask them for help. But, sometimes, I have nobody else to ask. I got tired of asking for the bedpan. It would take so long for someone to come and then when they got tired of bringing it to me, they left it where I could give it to myself. Then I’d spill it and they’d have to change the bed. And they’d think I did it on purpose. Who would do something like that on purpose, for heaven’s sake? About the only thing, you can do is hope that those nurses don’t work with you that day.”
Have you ever told anyone else? I ask. “What good would it do? They don’t like it when you complain. Besides, things get worse sometimes if they found out you complained.” There was some silence between us for a while and I know that’s when she has said all she cares to about some topic.
Is there enough to do? I ask. Are you ever bored?
“Oh, yea. Waiting for lunch, that’s the worst. Usually, we just sit there and wait and wait. Then where lunch comes, it’s the same old thing. I think it all tastes the same. I can’t have salt. And I can’t have too much cholesterol. I can’t see the food very well. It all looks the same. I love chocolate. But, everybody keeps telling me I can’t just eat chocolate. Then, the nurses complain that I’m getting too heavy to lift. It takes two of them to move me. They can’t do it with just one of them like you can. They need one on each side of me. That’s why it takes them so long to help me to the commode. Because they have to go find someone to help them. And, no one is ever available. So, I wait and wait. That’s all I do these days. Oh, they try to make sure there is something to do, I guess. Except for right before lunch. You have about an hour with nothing to do but wait. I would just rather go to bed and read.”
Are you happy here? I asked her.
“I’m as happy as I can be. This is not the way I thought my life would turn out. This is my life now. This is it. I’ll die here, I know I will. I don’t want to. But, people die here all the time. This is where they come to die. This is my life now. Waiting to die. I know now why my husband shot himself. He didn’t want to get old and helpless and die in a place like this. I understand now…” She looks around her room a little and shrugs: “ This is my life now.”