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FOR SOME ELDERLY, HEAVEN'S JUST A HOT BATH AWAYI’d been diving for attractive artifacts on the ocean floor of my mind. As I rested in the shallow, warm waters off the coast of my bathroom tub, I mused on the absurdity ‑‑ indeed criminality ‑-of the elderly in nursing homes being denied the pleasures of a long soak in hot, steamy water.

For the most part, skilled nursing facilities have common showers where they wheel more than‑slightly embarrassed men and women on “shower chairs” ‑‑ which look like they’re made from PVC pipe ‑­through the hall to be hosed off, in a perfunctory ritual that usually happens twice a week.

That’s right: No tubs.

Well, one place I worked there was something like a tub, which was called a “whirlpool.” There was just one for over 60 people, and you had to have a special doctor’s order to use it. Using something akin to a small cherry picker, they hoisted them up and dropped them in and then fetched them back out again.

Flying through air at the end of a crane is not usually an 84‑year‑old’s idea of a good time.

Recently, while attending to a woman in an Alzheimer’s facility, I saw she had a severe problem with “neurogenic dermatitis,” a skin irritation of psychological origin. We found a cortisone injection that helped tremendously, but she was still terribly uncomfortable and kept scratching and tearing at her skin until it bled. I searched the facility for a tub so I could relieve her misery. I simply could not believe there was no tub on the premises. We improvised and eventually her she could live comfortably in her own skin again.

In my estimation, the absence of such amenities is inhumane. When you are old and aching with arthritis, frantic with dermatitis or have feet and hands numb with cold from poor circulation, a hot bath can be next to nirvana.

At very least it can be a reprieve from hell.

Instead of spending the money to install some bathtubs and hire the extra staff it would take to stay with the patients for a few minutes while they steamed away their pain and weariness, corporate marketing spends lavishly on things they consider essential ‑‑ new wallpaper and carpet, tacky furniture and cheap art. When will those CEO’s care more about how their patients feel than looking good on paper? When will those marketing and PR types figure out that their residents don’t give a flying, furry fig if the place looks like an Ethan Allen showroom?

All they want is a few precious moments of being unworried and pain‑free.

Is a bath once in a while too much to ask for when you are paying so much for care? In most nursing homes in this country, apparently it is.

18 Jul 2012

The Conductor

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Toy TrainGeorge loved trains, music, and women — mostly women.

Age and disability notwithstanding he was always wanting to make love.

It never occurred to him that being nearly immobile presented some difficulties in that regard. For the most part he sublimated quite nicely into fervent hand holding and conducting his imaginary orchestra. He had a silver shock of hair that flopped around on his forehead like Leonard Bernstein when he got carried away. He was once a very powerful man and bitterly missed being important.

When I met him he lived in an exclusive residential facility on top of a hill with a million-dollar view he never saw. He sat in the middle of a huge room where he was enthroned amongst the trappings of a life gone by. A more lonely man I think there never was.

He’d been an executive with the FAA; awards were plastered all over the walls. He had plaques and memorials to service and leadership, and all the accoutrements of wealth and refined taste. Rosewood, and Chinese black lacquer furniture; high level trinkets interspersed with family pictures.

Ah, the family who rarely came.

An unfaithful wife had dumped him when he got older and lost his good looks and influence. He still roared like a wounded beast when he talked about her. But I could soothe him with the magic of trains.

Around Christmas I decided to get him a train set to fill up his cavernous room and got the big kind – H.O., I think — and the track and set them up in front of his recliner. The train set was red and gold and had a lovely whistle.

He was beside himself the first time they made their circle around the little village. I was on the carpet, of course, assembling it, and before we knew it George had slipped out of his chair and onto his knees and crawled over to join me next to the track. He was seven years old all over again and life was grand. He ran that train around and around and around, engineer’s cap on his hoary head.

Even better than the trains, we’d had a good laugh because the witch of a house manager had gone by the window and seen us all on the floor and thrown a fit. She “couldn’t understand,” “never thought,” and “just didn’t see how” for about five minutes, and after she’d huffed and puffed and we were still unimpressed, she simply shrugged and walked away. We exchanged purely wicked glances as delightful as 80-proof plum pudding. When George got tired we pushed and pulled to get all 200-plus pounds of him back up into his Barcolounger and tucked up nice and warm under his blanket with the remote in his hand. He fell asleep, blissfully exhausted.

He was recently moved to a nursing home where he continued to have poor impulse control; a hand up a dress, a fist in someone’s face, food flying at someone who bothered him. He’s got roommates; two unfortunate blokes who have to share a small room with his imperial highness of the ionosphere.

I try to soften the strain on everyone while waiting for a private room. I sing and clown to ease the tension, and scold when I need to.

I wanted to bring his trains and suggested we could set them up somewhere in the hospital where everyone could enjoy them. George could be station master.

It might even keep him out of trouble thought I, but for reasons inexplicable to me, management thought differently. The only nod to the needs of a troubled soul was permission to have a stuffed animal, so I got him a gorilla. He named him – of course, Georgie. The last time I saw him he was holding the black gorilla in his lap, explaining to him in confidential fashion that the food there was lousy.

Then he surprised me. He used Georgie to talk to the woman next to him who had a bear of her own sitting on her lap. She smiled, delighted. The sweetness of it nearly slayed me. Two lonely people in wheelchairs stuck in a nursing home found a way to connect.

Maybe they even became sweethearts – God, I hope so.

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