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Home? for the Holidays . . .

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“There are homeless people everywhere.
This homeless guy asked me for money the other day.
I was about to give it to him and then I thought
he was going to use it on drugs or alcohol.
And then I thought, that’s what I’m going to use it on!
Why am I judging this poor bastard?”

Greg Geraldo

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The above quote comes from New York comic Greg Geraldo (a regular on the David Letterman & Conan O’Brien shows) as featured in the ‘Rhythm‘n’Speak’ song called Underwear Goes Inside The Pants by Lazyboy.

With that being said – this journal is not what you think it’s about. I don’t want to wreck your Holiday Spirit, but I want to share something I recently experienced. i have to apologize in advance for NOT discussing tinsel laden trees, twinkling lights, and hot cocoa by warm hearths. That’s not the home for the holidays I mean. I am talking about the concept of “home” as a term of reversal – as in when you don’t go over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house, but when you go to the nursing home where grandma now lives.

Also – if you get through this LONG journal, you are truly a friend who understands the necessity of my having written it.

We are in an America where an ever-increasing aging population is going to put an enormous stress on health care systems, care facilities, and eventually, the major retirement system, social security. For one of my recent projects in my Psychology of Adulthood and Aging course, my task was to visit the dreaded “nursing home” for a “reality experience.” It was a humbling journey and truly got me to thinking about how we will live as older adults, what we will call home, and especially, being the maker of homes, how women live.

Just as there is a “feminization” in poverty rates, meaning that women command lower salaries in the workforce and are more likely to be single parents with full custody, care and financial responsibility, there is a feminization in aging populations due to lower mortality rates among women. The sex ratio leaves a lot of women as widows, less likely to remarry, living below the poverty line and in many cases, in subsidized, institutionalized or hospitalized (assisted) housing and without benefit of spousal support.

My mission/assignment was to visit a nursing home and spend an hour with a resident. I was not to grill them with questions or conduct any investigative reporting, but more read to them, make pleasant conversation, push a wheelchair – whatever was required. Just visit someone for an hour of volunteer work.

I should begin this by stating that I had the opportunity and benefit of visiting two different care facilities, whose names I will not dislose. I did this primarily for comparison and easy locale. Also to be frank – the first place I visited was so utterly dismal and desperate for any volunteer work, I think they misunderstood my mission and asked me to come back the following day to help run a game of BINGO.

For the reader’s benefit I will refer to the first facility as ANRC and the second as SSLA.

The ANRC is located in a small neighborhood very near to where I work on the border of nice housing where they are trying to gentrify the area butted up against a straight-up ghetto of projects. I stopped there first around 5pm, as it was closest and I was always curious about the ghosts I would often see breezing past the windows. It would be kind to say that the summation of my visit bordered upon the depressingly surreal. At first glance, I felt very much like I just walked into a step-down intensive care unit in an understaffed hospital.

The woman who greeted me at the front desk, while polite, was a bit unkempt, slightly unprofessional, and well – this is no direct call on her character, but she was missing quite a few teeth. I explained to her what I was there for and she lead me through a grim sitting area where one man sat in a wheelchair. He reached out to me and mumbled a garbled greeting like “hello.” It was clear I was a new face he’d not seen before and he was looking for some kind attention from a new stranger. I stopped, smiled and said hello to him. I then went into a relatively sizeable room where a majority of the people seemed wheelchair bound, or mostly immobile. Some sat dazed, others talked quietly, a few were singing along with a particularly creepy rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” as being played over the speakers. It was dim and dreary, and smelled acutely of urine. An old wooden hutch housed a TV, squawking static, competing with the singing. Honestly – the film “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is an immediate comparison.

I was introduced to two women and I re-explained myself and my purpose to them. They were just re-organizing a small office: the doorway stood blocked with boxes, towering papers, and what looked like art supplies and activities. The equivalent of Rainy Day supplies for a school day’s indoor recess. They seemed to hear no other word except “volunteer” and the younger of the two explained she had just started two days ago. They both rifled through some folders and newly compiled binders for a Volunteer Form for me, asking each other, near the verge of argument what one or the other did with the said form. All of this, I felt was unnecessary considering the scope of my visit. One hour. Just to talk to someone who could use the company.

I sat down at what functioned as a table with one of the residents and filled out the form. The card table rocked on its legs and the small, crumpled man sitting with me, hunched over, perched like a bird, never looked over at me once. To my left was another man, slumped in a chair, his clothes disheveled, and to be blunt, his pants were undone at the button and half unzipped. Only his eyes moved. He also did not seem quite there, though he smiled at me when I looked over, and also muttered something incomprehensible followed by a light chuckle.

Across from me two women sat with coffee cups. Each of them had one hand on their cups and their free hands held each other in prayer, the end of which I overheard. “And I thank you Jesus, for my friend here and for my life.” Her friend prodded, “and don’t forget the coffee.” “Oh yeah – and for the coffee, Jesus.” The first woman added.

In the middle of me filling out this form, the toothless woman wandered into the room, thumbed some change into a vending machine, took her treat from the dump bin and trotted back to the desk. A sad tinsel tree leaned against this vending machine for support. She made no eye contact with anyone in the room; there were more 20 people sitting there. She made no motion to help anyone, to move someone or attend to them. They were all furniture to her. A room full of stinking chairs. Leaning like propped up tinsel trees, with worn out bases and broken strands of lights.

I returned the form to the two women mired in the office space, so mired in their own self-appointed self-important bureaucracy; they too failed to help anyone. Deciding where things would be kept was more important than keeping the people kept after in the next room. They practically looked hungry to see a new person there – they would’ve sopped me up like gravy on a dry biscuit. They begged me to come back the following evening to help run a game of BINGO. I knew I would not be speaking to anyone, but perhaps, they would put me on crowd control. I am sad to report, I never returned.

From there I went to the SSLA. It was on a main road, newly developed and shielded by a surrounding wooded lot. This place was worlds away from the ANRC. It is close to a large Medical complex, a shopping mall, the state capital, Annapolis, which is a beautiful tourist site, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The facility is more or less a monstrous house that resembles a Southern Victorian estate. A circle parkway with an awning, brass trimming on doors and archways, a porch where residents were sitting enjoying the cool, foggy night after a light rain.

It looked like a grand hotel: there was a TV room to my right with a fireplace and fish tank, cozy chairs, tables and ottomans. To my left, a curved bar area stood covered in balloons and both Christmas and Hanukkah decorations that led into a beautiful dining area. In the foyer was a large winding staircase with all the walls lined with fine art, and at the base of that, an attractive, young woman sat behind a large cherry desk, drawing holly leaves in dry-erase markers for an announcement board. Her name tag read “concierge.” The rooms where residents live are called “suites.” Behind her was a large white cage with the door open upon which sat an African Grey Parrot with red tail feathers. The bird wolf-whistled and said “welcome to sunrise.” I couldn’t have made this shit up if I tried!

She explained that the residents were dining and they usually finish up at 6:30. I told her I would return at 6:45 to sit with someone for a visit.

When I returned she introduced me to Barbara Moore, who never revealed her age and instead offered, “I am an old woman, but don’t tell anyone.” I sat down with Barbara and a man next to the fireplace. The man, in a stroke of gallantry, told her to put her feet up, hurriedly clearing off some newspapers and magazines off a large, round ottoman in the center of us. Barbara shot me a very funny glance that seemed to say, “chivalry is not dead, but it sure acts silly.” He stayed quiet while Barbara and I “made friendly conversation,” as she put it. She was funny and sarcastic, but also, spoke in a way that sounded like she was reading directly from a book of platitudes, Chicken Soup for the Soul flavored recipes for living.

Barbara had just arrived there as of two weeks prior. “Two weeks on Monday,” she told me, and she sounded a little pained, as if she’d been keeping close track of it, a bit like a prison sentence, marking black lines in rows of five on a wall and much less like a new move or vacation time. She revealed several things about her life and arrival there. “They thought I would feel alone in the house and wanted me to be cared for more.” Her daughter and her daughter’s husband had suggested she give this “assisted living” a try. While I didn’t pry as to the details or the time frame, Barbara had recently lost her husband and retired – both of which happened simultaneously as he was a lawyer and she worked for him at his firm. She laughed and said she kept her maiden name, which allowed her to be privy to all the gossip in the office, including the good (or bad) things said about her husband.

While we sat and talked a nurse came by and helped another resident in the room take some medication and monitor her blood sugar. Current new events on the war in Iraq were running on the TV. This prompted a discussion on how fast life moves now and where our families were from. I discovered both of our relatives hailed from Pennsylvania and had similar occupations. She said that her house hadn’t been sold but that her daughter was caring for it and had it been mostly shut-up. It is in a place called Sherwood Forest – a wooded, gated, affluent community near Annapolis where all the houses are brown and green to match the deeply wooded area and I assume, to keep an attractive, uniformed appearance.

Barbara was very kind; we laughed and she warmed to me as our conversation went along. There was a bit of an underlying tough side to her. I asked about the food and what she had for dinner and she said, “oh, the usual fare,” and waved her hand. When I pressed with, “what does the usual fare consist of?” She rolled her eyes and made a slightly disgusted face. We both laughed. She said she was always one to speak her mind and that it was important to her to tell it like it is. She conceded that even though it had only been two weeks, she was giving it all shot and was hesitant to make any quick-snap judgments. “They mostly leave you alone here, and you don’t have to make friends or get involved in things if you don’t want to, but it’s a nice place.”

Barbara mentioned that she has three grandchildren who are “all grown, like you,” she said. Then she asked me for the first time what I did and why was I there. I explained all of this to her and she delivered me a kind compliment. “You’re a very intelligent girl, you’ll do just fine, just keep your nose pointed.” She talked about her own mother and some of the things she used to tell her that enabled her to keep her nose pointed, smiling reflectively for a moment. The conversation flowed naturally and ended at the right pause where we shook hands warmly in parting as we wished each other well. “It will all work out the way it’s supposed to,” she said. And we both agreed that was the case for each other.

On the way out the door I talked to the concierge a bit who explained some of the finer points when I asked her about resident care. She pointed in the direction of other areas where Alzheimer’s patients and those residents requiring more assistance with daily living stayed. She said the parrot was donated from a resident who had lived there. And she frowned, so as to indicate the resident no longer LIVED there. They avoid death terms in places like these. You go here to live in dignity, not to die.

There were also residents who owned dogs and cats. It was refreshing to learn of so many ways that enable residents to feel more autonomous as well as help them to establish a sense of home that includes more of their personal effects and animal companions. I always imagined terrible little rooms with chintz and ratty bed sheets and tinfoil TV antennas and maybe a picture of a grandchild or deceased spouse on a small night table.

From these two places, the ANRC and the SSLA, I was able to see a full spectrum in capability and available care. Clearly, it is difficult to draw lines as there are major differences between a poorly funded, understaffed facility serving a lower socio-economic bracket and people with profound needs and a well-developed assisted living community geared towards a more functional adult with service and amenities and actual nursing care all of which is most likely planned and certainly paid for.

The SSLA boasts an atmosphere that “preserve(s) each resident’s dignity, encourages independence and best enables freedom of choice.” No matter what level of care our loved ones are able to acquire themselves or through family, the standard should focus primarily on kindness, appropriate medical attention, and dignity. How else can anything ever come close to being home?

So strange to imagine not having a place to that is strictly one’s own. So sad to imagine leaving a building where all of your memories, dreams, moments, life, death, lovemaking, food smells, laughter, tears – everything that is you is impressed into the walls, reverberating in the foundation, seeping into all the rooms like constant sigh of breath.

Some of us spend all this time amassing (or blowing) fortunes on a lifestyle. We even smash the words LIFE and STYLE together so that we forget to accomplish both. We grow into our 30s and 40s still using words like “roommate,” “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” squandering our time and love on people we don’t end up with in any meaningful way, investing our energy into fair weather friends who sap our resources and trust, and cramming our belongings into a series of apartments we hate: too small to erect a tree, toss a string of lights over an awning, or run garland up a stairwell, too busy to even think about it anyway. We forget to make home every day so that it is even more so when it becomes holiday.

I’ve mostly been with the same man, (with some interruptions) over the last seven years. I don’t know that we’ll be married. I don’t know that we want to be. Children? I barely survive caring for cats! But his parents built a house that we designed and helped with. Their house is on the same property and so we are all kept close. Neighbors. They retired and we assumed their mortgage to pay them back for taking care of us while we built. They still take care of us and we care for them. His mother tells me “we did it for selfish reasons, too.” They don’t want to end up in a care facility. A nursing home. An old folks’ home. A home that is NOT a home.

We could all do better by sticking together, and investing in each other and the places where we probably, spend the other half of our time that does not consist of our trying to escape an imagined boredom or the time spent away earning the money to pay for it all. Perhaps if we were turtles, carrying our homes on our backs, always with us for warmth, sleep, protection we would better understand the necessary burden of having a place that you would find yourself naked and vulnerable without.

We should have an obvious affection for the word home whether we mean a postal code, a childhood residence, a neighborhood, a wooded sanctuary, a far away country. Home is where your shit is. Home is where you come from. Home is where you hang your hat. Home is a place where when you go there they have to take you in. A home is not a place, it is people. A good home must be made, not bought. Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam, be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. Home is where you’ll go when you die. Home is where the heart is.

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