First off I’d say if any resident wanted to escape from their ward, it would be a medal receiving task if accomplished. The place is a maze of hallways, rooms, and desks that I’m sure seems organized and straightforward to the regular visitor, but to me it was just a plate of spaghetti halls with meatball rooms thrown around to confuse me even more. Luckily, Jeff knew the route to his Gramma’s room, and we passed by the lounges and dining areas assigned to the residents in the various wards we walked through.
Funny thing about these communal areas, but the only noise coming from them originate in the televisions (of which no one is really watching). It’s like they’re there to keep the people amused with the noise, that is, if they are awake. Without any order to where the occupied wheelchairs were secured, or who faced whom, the rooms were silent. Heads slumped forward, backwards, or on their sides, eyes shut, and mouths open – all of them. Some heads were even supported by table tops with arms dangling. It looked like a scene from the Godfather movies, just after a massacre, only without the pools of blood.
The aroma of lunchtime meals was just beginning to make its way down the halls, no doubt sucked in behind us as we headed for gramma’s room. She was in a better mood today. Apparently when Jeff last tried to visit, gramma told him to go away (she was in no mood to talk), but today she was in a pleasant mood, and happy to tell us how the staff punched her twice and were trying to get rid of her. “I think they’re trying to give me a heart attack to get rid of me” she said. Indeed, if you listened to her side of the story, you’d swear her family had her committed to Guantanamo Bay for treason. We learned how the nurses leave her in her chair for 5 to 7 hours before they put her into the bed. The bread is tough and tasteless. They even tried to feed her ice cream on purpose, knowing full well she’s allergic to milk. They give her Corn Flakes for Breakfast (she likes them as an afternoon snack)! “The Cream of Wheat is sloppy” she says, and she hates soup… but the soup is very good… “tastes like it’s homemade” she says, adding “but I don’t like soup”.
The support worker came to collect her for lunch, and she immediately turned into grumpy mode complaining how another worker purposely hurt her ankle getting her into the wheelchair. “I don’t like the chair” she cautioned us. But the three of us got her into the chair and down the hall to her dining area which was filled with people – all of them looking like Don Corleone’s men had just left with their smoking Tommy guns, except the pools of blood of course. A couple of residents were shaking, so I knew the massacre hadn’t be as complete as it was in the room we passed on the way in.
The meals were being served, and slowly, the residents (well… some of them), returned to life. I’ve never really seen a completely pureed meal before. They look like puddles of baby food on a plate, merging together in the centre to form some kind of vegetable, meat and potato colour wheel of utter yuck. Good thing Gramma doesn’t need her meal to be passed through a screen door before it’s served. They gave her soup. She doesn’t like soup. Two spoonfuls of that and the bowl was pushed forward out of reach. “I want a sammich” she tells Jeff, and the worker shuffled off to the kitchen to return with a tuna sandwich. Gramma doesn’t like crusts either (that must be the “tough bread” I think), so she picks the centre section out of the sandwich piece by piece and pops them into her mouth one by one, and before too long the entire meal is gone, and a pile of cleaned crusts remains on the plate.
Beside gramma sits a sweet woman with nicely styled snow white hair and a British accent. Her name is Joan, and while Jeff helps his gramma, Joan (or “Joanie” as she quickly corrected me on) asked if I saw “the other couple”. She went on about her daughter, and I immediately got the feeling that she thought I was visiting her. I told her I was here to see gramma, and she suddenly had a sad face that quickly turned much happier with the delivery of her tuna casserole. Her smile was beyond special, and you could tell that in that mind of hers there was, somewhere, a host of memories of a wonderful life, but perhaps a tad confused about the who, what, when and where’s that could put it all together. So Joan and gramma and two other ladies at the table consumed their lunches, and then the announcement of the dessert options came.
I’ve never seen pureed chocolate cake before, and I hope I never… ever… see it again.
Gramma wanted a piece, but Joanie? Well, Joanie had a chocolate cake story for me, indicating with her index finger that I needed to come real close to hear it (apparently she had a slice the day before, so the memory of the delectable was fresh). “Chocolate cake goes straight down real fast” she explained, and then she starts laughing like a schoolyard kid up to mischief, and as I move closer so she won’t be overheard, she proceeds to tell me how it comes out. Making the sound in a manner I’d be proud of myself, and using her hand to emphasize the picture, she completely brought to vivid life how her body gets rid of chocolate cake. I howled! I told her how sweet she was, and the two of us laughed together at our private little conversation. I learned that Joan was born in Stockton On Tees on the east coast of England. She had a hard time recollecting the name of the town, but once it came to her, her face beamed wide, and I promised to look it up on a map when I got home.
It seems for many that the days consist of a very structured and probably necessary regime. You lay in bed, you get in a chair for meals, and in between you lay in bed or sit in a chair in your room and either stare at a TV or the walls. The more mobile folk of course can go and hang around in the “let’s pretend we’ve just been massacred” room, which truly looks like even less fun.
Jeff’s gramma is blind, and so hard of hearing you have to yell in her ear so she can hear enough of what you’ve said to ask “what?” Back in her room we once again hear how they leave you in the chair for hours on end before helping you get back into bed, so we engage her in some other conversation, some of which is heard (most of which is not), and explain to her how nice her surroundings are, and the pleasant staff, and how nice lunch at least appeared to be.
We hear the approach of a quiet voice, and at the door to gramma’s room, a woman appears shuffling her wheelchair forward by her feet into the doorway. Her expression suggests confusion as to why we are in her room. We realize that she is a little bit lost, and I notice the name on her chair and walk down the hall, and point out her room to Jeff. He grasps the handles of her chair, and with a smile on his face tells her he is going to take her to her room, and off they go. Jeff returns with a smirk on his face and explains how he wheeled the woman into her room when she asked about her chair. “There’s two chairs in here” Jeff answers. “Those aren’t my chairs” she tells him. “Aren’t you Viola?” Jeff asks her. “No. I’m Alice” she says, and Jeff says “We’re in the wrong room!” He wheels her into the next room where she finds her chair, and all is now well on that front.
I see sweet Joanie walking up and down the hall with her walker, and she wants me to see the room that her daughter “bought for her”. I somehow get the feeling that she truly doesn’t comprehend where she is, but is happy about life nonetheless, and very proud of her room. I peek in, and comment on the dog and cat picture on the wall, and she points to her bed, telling me “look… my bed is empty”. We chat some more, and I politely excuse myself to return to Jeff and gramma, and we soon finish our visit promising to visit again soon. I say “so long” to Joanie, and we nod to some residents as we make our way past the massacre room, and out the front door.
It is sad to see so many people who are in their final stages of their life like we did today. It is sad because Jeff and I were the only family in that dining room, and the staff far outnumbered any visitors that we were aware of. I thought of the men once working hard to earn money to feed and raise their families. I thought of these women raising their children, packing lunches, working, cooking meals and organizing family picnics. We saw wedding pictures, and snapshots of grandchildren and pets everywhere. The staff we met today were Angels. The care and compassion required to work in a place like this is like no other, and we experienced it first hand. A few short words to an elderly person and you can make someone’s day. A smile given is a smile returned, and there should always be time to share or listen to a story from these people who came before us. Today I learned so much, and I hope we’re back soon to visit with gramma, and Joanie (of course) and the people with their heads slumped in every direction. They are all beautiful people, and they only want a little bit of love, or a moment to offer a smile.