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.


15 thoughts on “Take A Sad Song And Make It Better

  1. Another lovely posting……it makes me so grateful and so sad. Grateful that I was able to care for my mother for seven years, grateful that she only had bouts of dementia, and so sad that she is gone. Nearly 10 months now, and a day does’t go by when I don’t think of her. I miss her so much. But, of course, you know how that is.

    xoxo Tati

    • Thank you Tati. I hope you find some comfort here, if only knowing that you are not alone as you feel the loss of your Mom. I just met a woman who shared the observation that after her parents’ deaths, she felt everyone expected her to just “shrug her shoulders and move on.” But she still wants to talk with them…and I can completely relate. If I had just one goal for A Swift Current, it is that we not be afraid to express our sorrow out loud. You have done that in your comment, and I thank you. H

  2. You bring tears to my eyesYou write beautifully! Pat

    From: A Swift Current Reply-To: A Swift Current Date: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 5:00 PM To: Patricia Lipton Subject: [New post] Take A Sad Song And Make It Better

    WordPress.com aswiftcurrent posted: ” 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 “

    • Thanks, Pat. I know you went through a similar experience. This was difficult to write, and I appreciate your comments. I wanted to make people less fearful of the idea of institutionalized care, as over the years I became convinced that my Mother’s received not only great care, but she was (on some level) even happy in a social setting.

      And yet there was always an undercurrent…had we done the right thing? Was I doing enough? What are we missing?. At some point, I might explore this idea further, but I don’t believe there are clear answers. Thank you again for your support of my efforts here.

  3. Again, my tears. And, your beautiful writing. Especially hard to read after a visit today with my daddy to his doctor…this proud, smart man who can’t remember so much. Tomorrow, we will have lunch together…and yet, I feel I just don’t do enough. Guilt over my lapses of patience, frustration over not being able to really make it a whole lot better.

    • The feeling that you don’t do enough is sadly the scourge of people who actually do more than enough. Does that make any sense? You have such a great heart, deep loyalty and logical mind–it is no wonder that you are confounded by this most illogical situation.

      And like me with the imaginary packages, just when you think you know what you’re doing, you realize you don’t…because this disease does not and will not let you. Better is a relative term…better doesn’t mean you’ve figured it out, or there will no more problems, it just means better than it was before.

      And I know you are making your dad’s life better…a whole lot better. Believe it.

  4. Hard to type a reply and thank you for your beautiful post when my eyes are filled with tears and my heart is filled with sadness.
    xo Tara

    • Tara, thank you for commenting. I hope that this post conveys that there are options available, that nursing homes were not the dark hole often painted by news reports, that there are trained people who are compassionate and caring.

      And yet, as their children, it is imperative that we guard our parents, keep them safe– as they did for us…

      I chose a line from the iconic voice of our era as my title because I actually thought of those exact words as I faced those tough years with my Mom. The entire decade was a sad song, but I do believe there were people and resources and ways to make it better…not great, but better…I want this essay to give at least a small measure of hope…

      Thank you for reading and commenting, H

    • Janie, I think your comment speaks to what I feel so deeply– even if a parent died years ago, the loss is still right below the surface. I chose the subtitle “Letting Our Parents Go” as something of an oxymoron…because I don’t believe we really “let them go” nor do I know if we want to. But society moves on quickly, and doesn’t want us to linger over loss. But I do; and hope A Swift Current can be a resource to help us ponder these issues. Thanks for your comments about my writing and participating here, H

  5. Sometimes I think you will never stop outdoing yourself in the beauty and profundity of your posts. I love this one – the title, the quotes, the art, the unforgettable image of your mother missing her packages and the clear message about “being there.” I’m going to send it to everyone I know with an aging parent. Merci and love, Kathleen

    • Now it is my turn to be speechless. I chose the images because they were so evocative of my Mom…the Vuillard at the beginning reminds me as she sat at the breakfast table reading the morning paper…and of course the Pisarro is (in my mind) the two of us staring at the LA skyline from our bench on the hill. The title, as I said in another comment, stuck in my brain DURING those years…particularly as I watched the nurses, the head nurse in particular. I thought that line summarized her life. So it seemed fitting to make it the title.

      As you know, a writer wants readers, and the only way I know to share my words is friend to friend to friend, my own personal pyramid scheme…that you plan to share it with your friends with aging parents has me dancing around my apartment! Your confidence in my writing and in my message makes me overjoyed. Is overjoyed a word? Anyway, I think I will take the afternoon off! THANK YOU! Hallie

  6. “I can’t wait to go into work”. How fortunate for your mother to be cared for by those who care. Whether as a job or by friends and family who took the time to visit, she was so loved.

    As others have noted, your writing is so beautiful and evokes such deep emotions with each post. Thanks for sharing your gift with us, Hallie!

    • Yes, JB, I was somewhat taken aback when she made the comment “I can’t wait to go to work”, and isn’t it encouraging that the people who do these jobs deeply care about their patients. I think sometimes we forget that they are there for more than the paycheck.

      And yes also to your observation that my Mother had huge support from many areas of our lives (church, school, work, etc). I should add that sent out occasional reminders, particularly preceding an event like her birthday, with her photo, address, phone number, and the remark “hugs and kisses welcome!” I even wrote on the Facebook page of a nearby church and requested that volunteers drop by to see her. And I always designed a Christmas card for her to send (also with her photo) and addressed the envelopes, which she and Grace then stuffed and sealed for the mail. So my Mom still felt like she was sending them out herself. My Mom’s card was one of the first to arrive, which helped ensure that she would receive cards in return.

      Every year this week, one of my cousins used to take his little boy to the nursing home, dressed in his Halloween costume. My cousin handed out candy to the residents, and then his little boy went “trick or treating” in every room! Such a lovely idea that brightened their day.

      I will always be grateful to everyone who joined in the effort to lift her up. I am convinced it is the little things that make a difference.

      Thank you again for your support of my writing, H

  7. This post gave me a lot to think about. We moved my Mother to assisted living facility only because it was too hard for ME to provide the things that she needed like driving 50 miles to the doctor and because she fell asleep a few times when we were not home with food on the stove and other similar situations where it seemed safer for her to be there. Also I could be sure she got her meds in the right combination and they took her blood pressure every day etc. and after three paramedic calls I realized that this was the time for her to be closer to her sons. I never once thought that there would be day when I would be thinking about a nursing home. Now I am thinking. I am especially thinking about the thought of her having a visitor every day. That is not an easy task. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. Right now she is lucid and having a grand old time with her friends at the home and I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe she will remain that way until her final hours. That is probably too much to hope for especially when I see, like at Thanksgiving that her memory is fading a bit.
    Once again, your experience is priceless for my brothers and myself and we thank you Halie.

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