Yesterday morning, when I was in the elevator at Epoch of Harwich, the door opened and there was a young woman standing in front of me. She was waiting with a small cart carrying pitchers of coffee and tea, plates of pastry and bowls of fruit salad. Instantly, I knew that somewhere on Mother’s floor family and friends were sitting vigil with a dying loved one. I remembered the tremendous kindness that the Epoch staff showed my family when my father lay dying. It’s almost a year ago now. In the week of Daddy’s final decline, we were constantly refreshed in body and soul with comforting cups of tea, embraces, detailed reports on my father’s transitions and even flowers in the window that had been opened by hospice staff for God to receive his spirit. So many staff members came to spend a moment with my father and some of the nursing staff even exchanged shifts so that they could stay continually with Daddy. One nurse took me aside and said, “I want to stay and be with Tom, but my family has rented a cottage in Maine and I have to go, but know my heart will be here.” Extraordinary and loving professionalism marks my history with Epoch of Harwich. I could not have asked for better counselors, caregivers and friends in those daunting moments of saying goodbye to a man of the ultimate kindness and joy.
I tend to visit Epoch on my way to work, because it gives me the chance to be with Mother while she’s waking up. With my harried work schedule, it also ensures that I see her during the course of the day. Yesterday, after saying hello to the young woman with the cart, I was walking back to my car and a big grin crossed my face, “I’m 52 years old, and I’ve already got my nursing home picked out. Cross that search off the To Do list. Between a more than full-time job and a dissertation deadline pressing on me, the last thing that I need is one more To Do! Can I reserve the room now? Say for 2034?”
Mother and Daddy (Yes, we’re transplanted Southerners so I’m a grown man and he’s still Daddy.) lived together at Epoch for five years. I used every resource to keep my parents at home as long as I could, but caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s and a father with advanced peripheral neuropathy and non-Alzheimer’s dementia took its toll on my health and finances. I could not have found a better haven for my parents, and I know that the excellence of Epoch of Harwich care gave me much more time with them. Daddy passed at the age of 90, and Mother is about to turn 91. The last years of their almost seventy-year marriage were decorated with joy because the nursing, activities, housekeeping, grounds and food service staff took such good care of them – wonderful birthday dinners, beautiful flowering trees and the vibrant atrium plantings, visits with therapy dogs and musical programs for “The Honeymooners” as some of the Bayview and Arborview staff called them.
I dreaded caring for Mother without Daddy’s help. I know that his constant presence kept Mother from descending deeper into Alzheimer’s isolation. Six or seven years living with this nightmare disorder, but she is still funny and connected. Her wit is renowned. I’m often greeted with, “You’ll never guess what she said today.” When Daddy had a small stroke, Mother said to one of the nurses, “If anything happens to my husband, please shoot me. But not till after lunch.” While her memory might reset every 90 seconds or so, each one of those separate 90 seconds is a delight. Even with Daddy gone, I am not alone in caring for her. The staff is indescribably kind to Mother and me. For example, they made sure that Mother was beautiful for Daddy’s funeral – doing all the touches that are mysterious to a son – the confidence of the right dab of makeup and the jewelry that was loaned to complement her outfit. Where else but Epoch of Harwich would I find an administrative staff and a nursing staff so contemplative about Mother’s wellbeing that there was careful review and time for mourning before a roommate was introduced? And they’ve strived to make sure that the pairings are right for each woman.
Some last words of advice for those contemplating care for a loved one. I was having a hard time negotiating my parents’ new world until one of the young Certified Nursing Assistants said, “Richard, it is just high school with wrinkles.” The light bulb went off. Indeed, I could see a nursing home not simply as a medical facility, but its own community with stories, rich relationships and so much living history. Explore it from that perspective and you’ll never fall into the all too familiar “It’s too sad to go” or “It’s too sad to watch.” Those pathetic refrains are the refuge of cramped, self-interested spirits. “She won’t remember that I was there.” Well, I guarantee you that she knew you were there in the time you were present. And for some the present is all they have. There is no privilege in one tense over the other. And think of a nursing home not as a replacement for your home, but an extension of it. The staff isn’t there to replace your care, only to supplement the care that you’d like to give if you had the expertise to do it yourself. They are your partners. Give them all the help that you can by being present and providing insight into the personality and biography of your loved one. The staff at Epoch of Harwich has helped me discover these things and I am deeply grateful.