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.

Jean?

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.

Now

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

U-S-C!

U-S-C!

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

U-C-L-A!

U-C-L-A!

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

proud

strong

accomplished

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.

She

fought in the war.

He

was a great teacher.

Now

they are

here together;

waiting.

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–

Speech-writing;

Grammy-winning;

Chocolate-loving;

Mothers

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

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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

still

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:

HOW TO SELECT A NURSING HOME

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