[You can read Part One here]
Like any closed social system, there was a pecking order among the residents of the nursing home. If you still had your own teeth, you told people about it with pride. Walkers took preeminence over wheel chairs. Bladder control over incontinence; fading memory over dementia. Even at the very end of life, the residents sought social cues to align themselves into a hierarchy. To the outsider, they just looked like a bunch of bored old people, but walking and working among them every day, I knew that Paul was a ladies man, Peggy was ostracized because she had alcohol dementia, Madge was everyone's sweetheart, and that Ferd was well respected for his business acumen. Had Alice deigned to get involved, she would have been pretty high up in the pecking order. She wore dentures and was blind, but she was still mobile - no walker or wheelchair for her! - she wasn't incontinent and she was mostly in her right mind.
|courtesy of morguefile.com|
But Alice didn't deign. She spent most of her time in her private room at the end of the hall, sitting in her recliner by the window and listening to sports on TV. Her room was always dark and the air was close and smelled strongly of her baby powdery perfume, but she was always up, dressed and sitting in her chair, hollering at the TV. I'm not like these layabouts, honey. No sir. I'm not going to spend the day in my pajamas like a baby. But I'm not gonna play Bingo, either. Stop asking me. So I did. If part of my function there at the nursing home was to help preserve a sense of dignity and engagement with life, then why couldn't Alice preserve some of her dignity by not engaging with her peers? It made complete sense to me.
Why do you spend all your time bothering old people? she would ask me. Young thing like you. You should be doing something fun. You should get a life. I would always laugh and tell her that I was doing something fun, I was playing Bingo today. She would snort and insult me and kick me out of her room. What do you want me to say, Alice? That I'd tried having fun and it wasn't? That I'd had so much "fun" that I'd destroyed my life and had to come crawling back to this tiny town to try to sweep up the pieces? That I had, until only recently, been sleeping in my childhood bunk bed with my sister in my parents' home? That I tried to get a life and I failed? That I didn't feel young at all? That I felt old and tired and used up and all I wanted to do was live as far away from myself and my messes as possible? No. It was easier just to paste on a bright smile and invite her to Bingo, suffer her insults and move on to the next room. This kind of rejection and failure was manageable and couldn't really touch me, I thought. I could just make a note in her chart at the end of the day - refused engagement - and my job was done. I'd tried, right?
I loved my job. Day after day, I held wrinkled hands and listened to stories, wiped drool, pushed wheelchairs and called Bingo. The girl who used to hide when her siblings were sick, who hated amusement parks and zoos because of the potential for vomit and unwashed humanity, would now calmly accept a set of dentures that were handed to her for popcorn removal. As far as nursing homes go, it was a nice one. It was expensive and tastefully decorated. But all the mauve cabbage roses in the world couldn't cover the fact that it was a place full of rapidly decaying bodies and tired souls. I watched families as they came in to visit their loved ones. That subtle wince in the doorway when the smell hit them, the shifting of breath from nose to mouth, the removal of sweaters and coats in the overly warm, pungent air, the look of alarm on their faces when Eunice met them at the door and shrieked. Eunice met everyone at the door and shrieked. It was how she amused herself. I immersed myself in all of it - the smell, the shrieking, the sweaty heat. I hated my life, but I loved my job.
I spent my days trying to cajole people four times my age into associating with their peers and went home alone to my tiny apartment every night, resolutely avoiding association with anyone. I had moved out of my parents' house - again - and taken a small upstairs apartment in an old house. None of the walls were straight. It was all eaves and gables and there was a dresser in the kitchen to hold my plates. My bedroom was little more than a glorified crawlspace in the attic with a mattress on the floor. I lit my incense and listened to my music and cooked cheap dinner on the dangerous old 2-burner gas stove. I had my books and my cat and my potted plants for company. With those and the lingering ghosts of my past, it was more than enough.
You are going to start a social club, my director informed me one day during our weekly meeting. It was a club designed for the higher functioning residents to be able to get together and discuss certain topics that interested them. The idea was to continue to engage them in stimulating conversation and keep them interested in the world around them. We would talk about current events, about politics, religion, books, music, movies, food, and anything else that interested the residents. There was a tendency to become absorbed with their own bodies, their health and their imminent death so the idea was that we would use this club to help alleviate some of that internal fixation and keep them connected to the outside world for as long as possible. The director thought I would be just the perfect facilitator for this new endeavor. I thought the director might be joking. Be sure you ask Alice, she told me as the meeting was breaking up.
[To be continued...]