To Understand (and he blessed you best of all)

looking up February 7, 2014  Photo by Hallie Swift

looking up February 7, 2014 Photo by Hallie Swift

Your eyes seem from a different face

They’ve seen that much that soon

Your cheek too cold, too pale to shine

Like an old and waning moon

And there is no peace

No true release

No secret place to crawl

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

                                                          (from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson)

On this day, thirty eight years ago,

my father died.

He was 63 years old.

In my mind,

he was not done.

My dad had anticipated his retirement years;

articles he would write;

classes he would teach;

trips he would enjoy;


When he died, his record company issued a news release:

‘…one of the very few true experts in the field of classical music…”

my very true expert;

my daddy;

gone at 63.

In his last months, he wrote to us; ideas and observations, philosophies and beliefs;

his letters, I thought, signaled the promise of things to come…

…Beethoven is not the only artist who suffered from excessive solemnity- which is a lead in to my second heretical statement.

If find the famous Sistine Chapel fresco of Michelangelo to be a bit ludicrous- I suspect the reason I regard it as a failure is that Michelangelo attempted to do too much- and found it impossible to sustain a high level of thought on the vast scale that he outlined.

Like the Ninth Symphony, the kindest words…are that it is a noble failure- but a failure nonetheless.

Several times I have been tempted to write a series of essays under a general heading like “Putting the Classics in their Place.” I have myself sometimes been annoyed by my own timidity at not speaking out against the oppressiveness of mass acceptance.

He never got a chance to write those articles; teach those classes; take those trips. My father’s retirement was brief; cancer stealing his hard-earned years of leisure; of reflection; of speaking out.

In my mind, he was cheated.

And I felt cheated too.

I read those final letters countless times; desperately searching for him amid the carefully chosen words and well-reasoned opinions. I wanted to know what he would think; what he would say; what he would do.

I wanted what could never be.

And I could not let go.

Just a few years ago, my pain began to ease. I wrote an article; not about Beethoven; not about Michelangelo;

I wrote about my dad.

He had been a record producer—in the early days—back when there were long-playing albums. In his era, the producer’s name didn’t appear on the jacket. I wanted to correct that oversight; give him credit; capture his role for posterity.

Researching every accomplishment; documenting every claim;

I wrote a Wikipedia page;

the internet equivalent of scratching

I was here

into the sand.

I showed it to my best friend. I watched nervously as she read. She paused and looked at me

This is a big life.

Three simple words:

a big life;

and for the first time in all those years,

I felt relief.

I began to understand;

he had done so much in so short a time;

he could do no more;

he was done.

I no longer needed to talk to him

every time I heard a piece of music;

no longer felt tumultuous anger;

no longer wished for what would never be.

My daddy

gave me all he could;

the rest was up to me.

I Was Here  Central Park discovery as I wrote this post  Photo by Hallie Swift

I Was Here ( a Central Park discovery as I wrote this post) Photo by Hallie Swift

And then, just a few weeks ago, I was completely confounded by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I felt a sense of loss out of all proportion. I kept telling myself

…you don’t know him…he belongs to his family…to his friends…

but the news blared and I listened

…the greatest actor of his generation…

I thought films were better because he was in them; his characters illuminating,

even the smallest part searing.

I read story after story about his prodigious career, his nuanced, soul-diving performances;

done at 46.

Amid the tragedy of his death, articles repeatedly bemoaned

performances we lost;

roles he should have played;

disappointment we will never see his Lear!

I bristled;

What could have been

only undermines

the undeniable feats;

the huge accomplishments;

the impenetrable mystery


his big life.

We want to believe

the best is yet to come;

we keep telling ourselves



for any of us;

for all of us;

our best

might be have been

a long time ago;

our promise now a memory.

(But we will never know).


I understand;

the measure of a life –

any life—

my father’s life–

is not captured by

annotated references

and attributable sources.

His best

might be hidden in the margins–

a fleeting moment;

an off-hand comment;

a letter written to his daughter when

he knew he was going to die.

He tried to tell her

what matters.

Put the classics in their place.

It took me

a long time

to understand;

every life

a big life;

no small parts.

63 years; 46 years;

he gave all he could.




If tears unshed could heal your heart

If words unsaid could sway

Then watch you melt into the night

With Adieu and rue the day

Did your dreams die young

Were they too hard won

Did you reach too high and fall

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

To Understand

to understand– Corita, serigraph, 1965 Used with permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles “to understand is to stand under which is to look up to which is a good way to understand”…art and words by Sister Mary Corita

For more information on Corita Kent (Sister Mary Corita)

All Lyrics from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson copyright 1994 Beeswing Music All Rights Reserved

All That You Can’t Leave Behind Part 2

Vuillard--Misia at the Piano, 1899

Vuillard–Misia at the Piano, 1899

Vuillard 1895

Vuillard 1895

And if the darkness is to keep us apart

And the daylight feels like it’s a long way off

And if your glass heart should crack

And for a second you turn back

Oh no, be strong

  Walk on, walk on

What you’ve got they can’t steal it

No they can’t even feel it

Walk on walk on

Stay safe tonight

Mama, can we clean this out? I’ll help you. It’ll be fun!

I pulled the handle. Papers spilled as the heavy drawer slowly opened –church bulletins, family photos, old grocery lists-

a waterfall of paper cascading to the floor.

Oh no, oh no! Put that back… I might need it!

A grocery list?

I might need it!

I put it back. Valued keepsakes; dumpster-bound discards; my mother’s home was an archeological dig waiting to happen.

There was even artwork under the beds.

Please don’t get me wrong. My mother was not a hoarder; she was a survivor; a Depression survivor. She saw potential in everything.

Can’t we throw this out?


But she didn’t live there anymore.

She lived in a nursing home.

And it was time to tackle 40 years of accumulated treasures.

With every decision

(would cousin Peter like this?)

(could the thrift shop sell this?)

(do you want this?)

I was haunted.

Our mother –

who relished this home

and cherished these belongings–

would not approve.

Even though she said

it’s time to sell the house;

I knew

she didn’t mean it.

She didn’t want this.

She lived only a few miles away,

And there we were;

shelf by shelf; drawer by drawer; closet by closet;

demolishing her life.

As we begin,

the neighbors accost prospective buyers, proclaiming the house should not be sold. Our mother would be happily at home if it weren’t for her evil daughters— from the east– who put her away.

A neighbor races to the nursing home

They are removing your dining room furniture. You said I could have it. I’ll give you a good price!

My mother is hysterical.

The nurses are aghast.

Nothing surprises us.

We clean the garage. Donning hazard masks, we load huge dumpsters– expired medicine; exploded tomato cans; a wealth of evidence that dementia made its appearance a long time ago.

A neighbor storms into the backyard. Jabbing her finger in the air

You are making a big mistake. We can take care of her. She‘s just fine!

We sift sort discard

clean pack


The neighbors’ tirades could not begin to match the torrent of emotions inside those walls.

The most mundane objects–

a chipped cookie jar;

battered manicure set;

dog-eared encyclopedia–

spark a firestorm of memories.

But where’s Uncle Charlie’s diamond?

Grandma’s wedding band?




We will never know.

But in truth–

they can have the diamond;

we have the cookie jar.

As each room is emptied, my apprehension grows;

I have dreaded this moment for years.

In a few days,

my sister and I will walk out of this house

for the last time;

down the steps, down the red brick path;

no turning back.

I am not sure I can do it.

We lift pull carry

scrub sweep


small glass bottles of water

hidden in a bottom drawer.

But not just any water—this is holy water– blessed at our parish church the night before Easter.

Our family always attended The Easter Vigil; my parents enthusiastically participating in the church’s dramatic rituals as it prepared its new year;

its new beginning.

The blessing of water was one of those rituals;

apparently my mother had saved water every year–

water with special powers–

if you believe in such things.

My sister and I look at each other, amused;

What on earth do we do with holy water?

The toilet?

Bad karma! Let’s decide later.


the house is empty; not a single object remains;

except the water.

The closing is this afternoon;

our purses sit by the door;

Let’s sprinkle the water in the garden!

My sister walks to a rose bush

I sent this to daddy when he learned about the cancer.

We toss water on the roses and say our parents’ names.

In an instant

the moment I have dreaded for years

is easy.

We look at each other

surprised; relieved;

they would approve!


we sprinkle water throughout the garden

calling our ancestors’ names:

our grandparents and their parents;

our aunts; our uncles;

the water is almost gone.

We walk to the tree at the corner

This is for

 our cousins

and their children

and their children’s children.

And for us–

This is for us.

I had anticipated heartache; sorrow; remorse.

I felt




We danced down the red brick path and got in the car. I had planned this part. The daughter of a record producer, I knew I would need a soundtrack.

I had already installed U-2’s latest disc. I hit track 4. We drove away as Bono sang the words that had carried me to this moment; the words I needed to hear

Leave it behind

You’ve got to leave it behind

All that you fashion

All that you make

All that you build

All that you break

All that you measure

All that you steal

   All this you can leave behind…

The Day We Moved In, Photo by my sister, 1963

The Day We Moved In, Photo by my sister, 1963

Both sets of lyrics from Walk On, from the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, music and lyrics by Adam Clayton, Larry Mullin, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, copyright Polygram International Music Publishing, BV

Again I welcome your comments.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind Part 1

A Place That Has To Be Believed...Photo by Hallie Swift

A Very Very Very Fine House…Photo by Hallie Swift

You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen…

                                                                   (from Walk On by U2)

I see it


the cool white Spanish walls

on a hot LA day;

sun streaming

in the tall windows;

the welcome breeze at dusk.

My sister

at the piano;

fingers flying, chords vibrating,

her conquest:

Rhapsody in Blue;

just for the fun of it.

My father

on the sofa;

end-of-the-day vodka

cradled in his hand;

a dog-eared encyclopedia

resting in his lap; always

studying something new,

just for the fun of it.

My mother

in her chair;

exhausted from

chores and cooking; cooking and chores;

waiting to be

swept away by

Masterpiece Theater;

just for the relief of it.

I see us


I took it all for granted;

my mother did not.

She wanted to buy a home for years, struggling to convince my Depression-scarred dad, who didn’t believe in debt.

But she wanted a house.

And she wanted this house.

When she heard Mrs. Gold might sell, my mother walked up the red brick path and


I have loved this house

from the moment she opened the door.

It was her dream; her triumph;

she even bought Mrs. Gold’s dining room set.

My mother lived in her house for 40 years;

until one day

with our urging

she headed to the hospital.

Knee replacement surgery would guarantee her independence

or so we thought;

I will have you dancing out of the hospital, her surgeon lied.

She walked out her door,

down the red brick path;

she never walked again.

In the beginning, I did not accept her fate. She begged to go home; I vowed to make it happen.

But two years after the surgery,

I finally started to understand.

My sister and I faced a dilemma. We lived in the east. We could not take care of our childhood home.

And we needed to pay the nursing home bills.

We needed to sell the house.

(But how do we tell her?)

We spent the holidays in Los Angeles;

(Merry Christmas, mama; oh by the way, we are going to destroy you).

We visited. We celebrated. We did not discuss it.

Our holiday was slipping away. December 26…

December 27…

I was trembling when we walked into her room.

Before we said a word, she looked at us evenly:

Well, girls, I’ve been thinking. I think it’s time we sold the house.


It must have been unsettling– knowing we were staying in her home–without her.

And just the day before, my uncle casually remarked

Well, dear, I’m going to your house now… to have a martini…

I gulped; he turned white; but

his blunder might have been the welcome catalyst —

Well, girls…I think it’s time we sold the house.

I was ecstatic. She had made a staggering decision with no prompting. But within days,

she protested:

Who said you could sell the house? Who decided?

You did, mama.

I did? I don’t remember!

Yes mama, you said: Girls, I think it’s time we sold the house.

I would never say that!

But you did, mama, you did.

And she had decided,

for one day–

or at least for one moment–

but I had learned; in the world of dementia, you take what you can get.

I never mentioned our house again.

But she did.

She continually plotted her return long after it had been sold. She tore our family photos from the nursing home wall, preparing for her journey. She begged the nurses for a bus pass. She sat stoically by the front door, waiting for her (long dead) sister to pick her up.

Sometimes I waited with her.

I let her believe her sister was coming.

I let her believe her home was waiting.

I could not destroy my mother’s hope.

Out of the blue, she might ask

Where is my dining room table?

We have it.

Who has it?

Well, you remember Uncle Ted, right?

Well, of course.

Remember his son Bob?

Yes, Hallie, of course.

Well, then you remember Bob’s daughter. Remember when she was a baby and had her first Thanksgiving at your table…

Oh yes, she is so cute!

Well, mama, Bob’s daughter has your table and all the dining room furniture. She is taking care of it for you. And when you are ready, she’s going to bring it back. Does that sound like a plan?

Yes! That sounds like a plan!

Over the years, she asked about her possessions as though she were taking inventory; table by table; room by room. She even asked about her recipes; an intriguing question for someone who hated to cook…

And each time, I converted her questions into conversations about family. I tried to be careful, calm, reassuring– her belongings would be returned, of course, when it’s time to go home.

But when is that?

When is what?

When am I going home?

Well, first you have to move into assisted living. And if you can be in assisted living without falling, you can go home. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you went home and had to come right back?

Yes, that would be terrible.

When you can live on your own without falling, then you can go home. Does that sound like a plan?

There was silence.

That, she said slowly, is a very tall order.

I know mama,
but it would be awful if you fell…

She looked into my eyes.

I believe

she knew exactly what I was doing.

You can go home…

That is a very tall order.

I stare into her almond-shaped hazel eyes;

And I see us


Sitting on the sofa;

Playing the piano;

Waiting for

Masterpiece Theater.

We can go home, mama.

We will walk up the red brick path;

light streaming in the tall windows;

white stucco walls against the hot LA sun;

a cool breeze at dusk.

Your home is waiting for you, mama;

I will take you there.

Does that sound like a plan?

Home I can’t say where it is

But I know I am going home

That’s where the heart is

And I know it aches

How your heart it breaks

And you can only take so much

Walk on, Walk on

Vincent van Gogh, White House at Night, 1890  Hermitage Museum Collection

Vincent van Gogh, White House at Night, 1890 Hermitage Museum Collection

Both sets of lyrics from Walk On, from the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, music and lyrics by Adam Clayton, Larry Mullin, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, Copyright Polygram Int. Music Publishing B.V.

The last essay, Remember the Ladies, inadvertently did not allow Reader Comments. I hope the problem has been remedied, and I welcome your comments. Thank you, Hallie

Remember The Ladies (Reprise)

A Swift Current Remember the Ladies--Christmas Owl Tree

The Owl Christmas Tree–Just Because–Photo by Hallie Swift

The head nurse was concerned.

She knew many of her residents had outlived family and friends.

She knew

come Christmas morning

many of her residents would not find gifts under the tree.

Determined to end their disappointment,

she issued an appeal:


Eagerly accepting the assignment,

my friends and I started to plan—

but what do you need at 90?

Chocolates and sweaters and books and stuffed animals and comforters and…

You need lipstick!


Yes, urged my friend,

after all, you never lose your vanity.

She was inspired.

But let’s not give just one lipstick–

let’s get lipsticks for everyone!

And in our annual Christmas party invitation,

we issued our own appeal.

Instead of a hostess gift,

we included a specific request:

Please bring a lipstick for the ladies!

And a tradition was born.

That year,

and every subsequent year,

we were showered with

gorgeous reds, shimmering corals, hot pinks;

a cornucopia of small rectangular boxes

adorned with festive ribbons and bright paper.

Our friends were enthusiastic–

I even needed an extra suitcase for

the lipstick express!

And Christmas morning,

when the nurses presented our beautiful little packages to the residents,

the response

was electric

(you never lose your vanity!).

The head nurse was effusive:

you made my residents happy–

And when my residents are happy, my nurses are happy–

And when my nurses are happy…

Well, you made our Christmas!

And girls—

Estee Lauder; Elizabeth Arden, Chanel…?

My ladies are beside themselves;

you girls are too much!

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964

But actually, our friends were too much. They gave us elegant brands in luscious colors, lovingly selected and carefully wrapped. One friend reported that she and the saleswoman chose lipsticks with tears in their eyes—then added every powder, polish and hand cream sample in the department. Even friends who couldn’t attend the party joined the lipstick brigade.

I wish they could have seen the smiles.

A few days after Christmas, a resident approached me; her eyes wide and glistening; her beautiful grey hair pulled back in a long braid.

Are you Hallie?

She reached into her pocket and produced a lipstick.

She giggled as she waved it high in the air;

her voice light, girlish, melodic;

I’m Dorothy.

I just love my lipstick. Thank you!

The pleasure was ours.

For many of us, the trip to buy lipstick became a defining moment of our holiday season. Some friends even continue the tradition; now taking lipsticks to their local nursing homes.

And recently

a friend told me

she always thinks of my mom

this time of year;

I say a little prayer

for your mom…

remembering the lipsticks of years gone by…

Remember The Ladies.

A Swift Current Vuillard The Earthenware Pot

Merry Christmas from A Swift Current and Vuillard (Le Pot d’Argile 1895)

Remember Us Here Together

You Are Mother of the Year!

You Are Mother of the Year!

I taped the faded telegram to her wall.

I wanted the nurses to see it.

I wanted her to know it.

That’s you, Mama;
that’s you–

Mother of the Year.

I added a photo:

the Opening Night Gala of the

Metropolitan Opera–

That’s you, Mama;

that’s you–

on Placido Domingo’s arm;

Cinderella at the ball

floating in layers of green chiffon

donned in a giddy swirl of panic and euphoria.

I covered her wall with photos; a dog-eared tapestry of beaming smiles; shining faces; triumphant moments;

This is your life, Mama.

This was your life.

Similar shrines began to appear in other residents’ rooms. Some families hung stately framed portraits; others created ragtag mosaics like ours; but the message was the same:

he fought in the war;

she was a great teacher;

Attention must be paid.

In the early days, I walked through the nursing home with blinders;

I saw only my Mother;

worried only for her.

The other faces blended in my peripheral vision;

frail bodies;

bent figures;

lonely lives;

not my problem.

Until one day

an elderly woman in a wheelchair beckoned.

I looked around.

Me? You want me?

(What could she possibly want?)

You don’t know me, but I watch you coming and going. I decided it was time to introduce myself. I look out for your mother; she is a lovely woman but you know, she gets quite confused.

(Well, how do you like that …)

Jean was bright; elegant; sparkling. Always draped in soft pink hues, she looked lovely. And she always had a book in her hands; a joyful laugh; an incisive observation.

I never quite figured out why she lived in the nursing home. She didn’t appear ill; she didn’t have dementia; she didn’t seem to belong here. But no matter, I enjoyed spending time with her.

And I was grateful she looked out for my mom.

One day, I peeked into her room; her bed was neat. I couldn’t find her the dining area. I returned to her room

and realized:

the nameplate on her door was empty.

I ran to the office.


I wasn’t family;

the head nurse wasn’t supposed to say anything.

But she broke the rules

and told me:

a suspicious cough;

a terminal illness;

Jean declined treatment.

She faced her death with same sweet energy and unwavering grace that had carried her through brighter days.

She had even approached the head nurse with a memorial request;

She asked we sing

In The Garden;

She said it was her mother’s favorite hymn…

And with those words, the head nurse broke down.


I still see Jean

as she beckoned across the room

so many years ago;

take off your blinders;

Attention must be paid.

And so I did.

I still see

Ruth—ecstatic over her 90th birthday; Marguerite—desperately gripping my hand; Kathryn– grinning as she received gifts of chocolate;  Patti- a cat loving, Grammy-winning record producer; Elizabeth– excitedly reliving that day’s entertainment; Jim—a five-star general; Julia—an unassuming speechwriter for one of our country’s most beloved leaders; Leonard—a renowned concert pianist; Gladys—composing so many hits she’s in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame; Florence—rescued from her Ninth Ward rooftop while her family watched on CNN;

And Mary–

who began to cry when the staff took her photograph.

Please don’t be upset. Why are you crying?

No one has wanted to take my picture for years.

A Swift Current Photo of a beautiful accomplished senior

I Will Never Forget You– Photo by Hallie Swift

And I will never forget a lazy Saturday afternoon; a quiet autumn day; college football on TV. From her room, a resident began to chant



Not to be outdone, my mother wheeled to her door:



A voice cried from down the hall:

Let’s Go Bears!

Let’s Go Bears!

And the nursing home erupted;

a cacophony of cheers

echoing through the corridors–

it was comical, absurd, thrilling.

A generation of




men and women;

making a goal line stand.

Their distinctive faces;

their distinguished lives;

fading fast in the autumn light

like the blurred edges of an artist’s pastel.


fought in the war.


was a great teacher.


they are

here together;


From a wheelchair

in the corner

an old woman beckons

(What could she possibly want?)

I thought it was time to introduce myself.

Attention must be paid.

Remember her.

Remember Us

Here Together–





of the Year.

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses…

And the joy we share as we tarry there…

None other has ever known…

(for Jean, with thanks)

Bench in Central Park--Remember Us Here Together-- Photo by Hallie Swift

Bench in Central Park–Remember Us Here Together– Photo by Hallie Swift

In the Garden written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912, copyright in the public domain.

The phrase Attention must be paid is of course from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, first published by Viking Press, 1949

The Buck Stops Here (or How To Select a Nursing Home)

Madame Hessel at her room at Clayes, painting by Vuilliard

Painting by Vuilliard–Madame Hessel at her room at Clayes

How’s my Mom?

Oh honey, she’s just fine

You know

Your Mother Will Outlive All of Us!

Of course, my Mother was not just fine;

dementia was obliterating her brain.

But time after time

the head nurse began our conversations

with a wink and a shrug;

a tip of the hat

to my Mother’s physical strength and spirited demeanor:

You know, honey

Your Mother Will Outlive All of Us!

We always laughed;

we knew better.

And laughter aside

during every visit,

I closely observed the head nurse in action.

She inspected her realm with a determined, confident stride. Her nursing home was clean, brisk, efficient; call buttons answered quickly; accidents cleaned immediately.

She was strict;

she was demanding;

she got results.

In the early days, I was a little scared of her.

She began each morning with a visit to every bed;

holding hands; studying charts.

And while I admired her high standards, it was her compassion that won my heart.

I witnessed her frustration when families ignored her patients.

I witnessed her camaraderie with her loyal staff.

I witnessed her struggle when death hit hard.

She had nursed elderly patients

in their final hours

for decades; and


death hit hard.

Watching her,

I came to understand—

the nursing home was like any business–

the tone and temper, ethics and morality, compassion and care were shaped by the person in the corner office–

the head nurse’s office.

She was direct; straightforward; uncompromising.

She always told me what I needed to know, even when I didn’t want to know it.

And whenever I asked how my Mom was doing,

I knew what she was going to say, even before she said it

Oh honey, your Mama is so strong, she’s going to outlive all of us!

We’d always laugh.

I didn’t see it coming.

The staff left a message: your Mom is fine but call as soon as you can.

I was in a hurry;

I dashed a note to my sister:

Can you find out what they need?

A few hours later,

I saw my sister’s reply:

Sit down before you open this.

You are not going to believe this.

My friend

was dead;

lung cancer.

I hadn’t seen her during my last few visits. I had asked the nurses to say hi.

Only then

I realized

they had looked away.

They did not say a word.

A new head nurse hired new staff. Walls were painted; carpets changed. Therapy dogs visited patient beds; but

the head nurse didn’t.

Some things were better;

some things not.

But one thing held true;

like any business,

the tone and temper, ethics and morality, care and compassion of the nursing home were shaped by the person in the corner office–

The buck stops here.

In memory of my friend, I offer an article from her monthly newsletter. Her newsletter reflected her personality: strongly opinionated; deeply empathetic. Her featured column, describing the life accomplishments of the Resident of the Month, was designed to remind the staff of their mission and reinforce her respectful approach to patient care.

Incidentally, her newsletter was called The Resident

which tells you all you need to know.

Here is her article, which I have reconfigured as a checklist. The title:


I suggest you visit early, around 9 AM.

From then on use your senses.

Your nose

If you walk in and smell urine or Pine Sol, walk back out.

There is no excuse for a strong urine odor. A strong urine odor is one indication that residents are dehydrated. It also tells you there is:

Not enough linen to keep residents clean and dry;

Not enough staff to change residents;

Not enough housekeepers to mop up spills.

But mainly, it tells you that the director of nurses and/or administrator have NO SHAME that their facility smells of urine.

Your eyes

While you tour the facility, don’t let them rush you.

Walk slowly and observe:

Are men shaved, eyebrows trimmed?

Do the women have hairs on their chins?

Are lips dry?

Are fingernails long and dirty?

Are rooms neat?

Are linens old and thread bare?

Watch the interaction between staff and residents

Are call lights answered promptly?

Read the activity calendar

Ask questions

Review a weekly menu

Your ears

How is the noise level?

Are the residents yelling?

Is the PA system constantly used?

If the facility is noisy, it means there is not enough staff.

Inspection Reports

Shake them up and ask to see their last inspection report. If it is in a locked cabinet, be wary.

Have them explain any deficiency. Remember: no one gets a perfect inspection report!

Talk to the Director of Nurses, not a marketing administrator or social worker

As the Director of Nurses, I am the most appropriate person to handle all inquiries. I have always felt a prospective family should talk to me, as I am the one responsible for the nursing care.

The family needs to establish a rapport with me. They need to know me and feel comfortable coming to me with questions. If you meet the director of nurses and feel insecure or have bad vibes, think twice.

The level of care in every nursing home rests on the shoulders of the Director of Nurses.

The buck stops here. 

Our last Mother's Day at the nursing home--  Photo by Hallie Swift

Our last Mother’s Day at the nursing home– Photo by Hallie Swift

Take A Sad Song And Make It Better

A Swift Current Take A Sad Song and Make It Better

The Mother of the Artist Reading by Vuillard

…when his children finally talk him into moving her into a nursing facility near their home, Pasquale weeps with sorrow and guilt, but also with relief, and guilt for his relief, sorrow for his guilt… (from Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter)

My Mother in a nursing home;

I was terrified.

Ripped from the headlines images

Seared in my brain.

My hands trembled;

my Mother in a nursing home;


Her stay was meant to be short lived; just long enough to do therapy for her newly replaced knee.

But after surgery, dementia made its unanticipated, irreversible, full-throttle debut. The anesthesia had obliterated her mind. My Mother could no longer cover her missteps and misstatements.

My Mother could no longer care for herself.

We were completely unprepared. We knew nothing about her rights or our responsibilities. Armed with worry and trepidation, sorrow and guilt, we sought advice from social workers, clergy, doctors and friends.

The chorus was unanimous: see an eldercare attorney.

We peppered her with questions. What is the best home in Los Angeles…Should we move her east… How much does it cost…How do we ensure compassionate care…that she won’t be abused…that she will be safe?

From her well-heeled perch in a stylish office, the attorney offered one observation worth recounting. And while only partially accurate, her words shaped our decade:

It doesn’t matter where your mother lives; it doesn’t matter how much it costs.

She can be in the most expensive facility in the city and still

there is just one rule:

The only thing that matters is that your Mother has a visitor every day.

It is simple. It is inevitable.

If the staff thinks family or friends might show up, she will be the first to receive attention.

They must think someone is coming.

It was cynical; it made sense;

And from our perch in the east, we orchestrated our visitor-a-day strategy. We enlisted cousins, parishioners, work colleagues, even our high school teachers; generous friends all who incorporated visits with our Mother into their already busy lives.

And the backbone of our strategy: we continued to employ our Mother’s home aide. Hired part-time a few years earlier, Grace became an almost daily presence at the nursing home, devoting more hours than we could ever reward. She became an astute observer of my Mom’s condition; I relied on her eyes and ears. As my Mother succumbed to the ravages of dementia, Grace repeatedly experienced the worst of her dramatic mood swings,

And was back by her side the very next day.

While the staff might have anticipated Grace’s schedule, I never told them when I would arrive. I wanted to see my Mom without any special preparation; to catch them off guard if I possibly could. But time after time, I found my Mother dressed beautifully; hair combed; lipstick in place; participating in activities; dining with fellow residents.

As I watched the staff in action, I slowly began to trust them.

I watched as the head nurse began her day, moving bed to bed, consulting nurses, studying charts, holding hands; her serious purpose belied by the frequent sound of her crackling, big-hearted laughter.

I watched as her nurses juggled competing demands, gliding seamlessly through the halls; maintaining a quiet,steady pace; responding to call buttons that weren’t allowed to ring more than once.

I watched as nurses, therapists, aides, and social workers spoke to their patients in gentle, measured cadences; I never once heard a raised voice or frustrated tone.

I watched as janitors cleaned spills immediately and thoroughly, not masking smells with bleach, leaving no lingering odor.

I watched as the activities director greeted each resident by her formal name;

How are you this afternoon, Mrs. Swift?

She shared studies that guided her approach. Of course, it seems obvious that being welcomed into a room and addressed by your name could improve your mood, but when the new activities director introduced this simple innovation, the place became lively; invigorated; happy.

And when we commented on her enthusiastic efforts to entertain, engage, and stimulate her elderly charges, she responded with surprise

I love my job. I’ve wanted to work with old folks since I was young. When I’m home, I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Take a sad song and make it better.

I slowly began to understand that my Mom’s care was the result of an intangible mix of education and expertise, quality and depth, energy and commitment– available right there– at the nursing home.

And even late in the decade, when I thought I knew how to interact with my Mother, I came to realize that I did not begin to approach their level of understanding.

This reality was underscored a few days before our last Christmas. My Mom and I were visiting in the garden. She had gone inside for just a few minutes. As the attendant wheeled her back, my Mother became frenzied;

Where are my packages? My packages are missing!

What packages?

The packages that were sitting right here! Those are presents; presents for everyone!

Mama, there weren’t any packages.

Oh no OH NO. Hallie, you lost my packages!

My Mother began to cry.

Her imaginary packages were missing.

I thought I could handle it. I had been doing this for ten years, right? I ran to my Mom’s room, grabbed several boxes, and returned to the garden, announcing proudly,

Here they are! Here are your packages!

(Aren’t I clever?)

NO! Those aren’t my packages. You lost them YOU LOST THEM YOU LOST THEM!

My Mother sobbed

Now I won’t have Christmas presents for anyone!

I ran to the nurses’ office. I could not breathe.

She’s missing! Her packages! Not Real–Packages–Missing!

The charge nurse jumped out of her chair.

She raced to my Mother’s side.

What happened what happened what happened?

Head in her hands,

My packages.

My presents for everyone.

All gone.

Oh, I know where they are! The security guard took them to the safe. I saw them—they’re in the safe!

In the safe! THANK YOU THANK YOU! I thought they were lost.

The security guard has them. You will have presents for everyone.

I was speechless; astounded; grateful.

There was, of course,

no safe;

no security guard;

no packages.

There was, however, a resourceful, compassionate, quick-on-her-feet charge nurse.

(Take a sad song and make it better.)

As I watched the staff in action,

I embraced the unthinkable;

the nursing home was a great place;

my Mom received great care.

And yet

I never completely lost my fear.

I never forgot the attorney’s words;

Someone must visit her every day.

And despite all the good and caring and hard work I had witnessed,

my confidence was laced with doubt;

trust with an asterisk.

Was my Mother’s care the result of the attorney’s advice; our visitor-a-day strategy?

If we became less vigilant, would it change?

Or was my Mother’s nursing home simply run by efficient, compassionate, skilled professionals?

I think it was the latter;

Door number 3;

I want to believe.

I do.


my advice is straightforward:

(it’s the only thing that matters)

go see her;

(she will be the first to get attention)

every day you can;

(they must think someone is coming)

Every single day if you can;

Then you will start to make it better.

A Swift Current  Take A Sad Song and Make It Better

Someone Must Visit…this painting by Pissarro is evocative of all those afternoons…

Beautiful Ruins copyright 2012 by Jess Walter, published in 2012 by HarperCollins. Beautiful Ruins is a fascinating novel which has nothing to do with nursing homes, but of course I found the one passage that applies and like the rest of Jess Walter’s writing, captures the emotion.

The title and closing line is of course taken from Hey Jude, words and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, copyright 1968 Sony/ATV Music Publishing. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.