Monday, November 8, 2010

The Nursing Home Experience

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on Saturday, November 6, 2010.

By Bill Gouveia

Over the past few weeks my family has had the responsibility of placing a loved one into a nursing home facility. While an unavoidable part of life for many, it is also heartbreaking and patience-trying.

My step-dad is almost 82 years old, and his health has taken a turn for the worse recently. A widower, he simply could not continue to stay in the assisted living facility he called home for the last year. So my brother and I began the long journey into the federal and state bureaucratic mess most face when this life phase comes along.

The first step was locating a facility that had room for him and that we believed provided an appropriate level of care. Neither of us has much experience in such matters, and it certainly opened our eyes. I don’t care how good the nursing home you find is, it is still a nursing home. Unless you are independently wealthy and can afford expensive private care, you wind up settling in some way for less than you would have hoped.

When we found a good facility with an opening, we began to wade into the paperwork that can quickly overwhelm the average person. There are applications to fill out for various state and federal agencies, financial information to be gathered and submitted, and long and tedious phone calls to be made. Medicare and the related insurances are not among the easier things to understand in this world.

But that is nothing compared to what the poor person going into the facility must endure. I have come to the conclusion there simply is no way to explain to an elderly man or woman you love why you are leaving them in a place they do not want to be. You can have all the facts on your side, be secure in the knowledge you are making the only good decision available – and still feel as if you are betraying the trust placed in you.

Forget what it does to you, the guilt and the sorrow and heartache of leaving your family member with strangers for what will be the rest of his/her life. What it does to the elderly person himself/herself is what you worry about. The desperation and pain in their eyes the first time they beg you to “go home” is exceeded only by the same look the many subsequent times they ask.

You leave them knowing they will spend most of their hours alone with their thoughts. You leave them knowing the staff will treat them well, but that they cannot respond instantly every time they are summonsed. You pray they know you love them, and would not do this unless it was necessary.

You know in your head and in your heart you have done the best you can for him/her. Yet you constantly question yourself, your judgment, and whether or not you could have and should have done more. Your force yourself to channel the guilt that wracks you into energy that propels you. You remind yourself the person you love depends on your ability to do the job you have been entrusted with and accepted.

You also remember this does not have to be a totally negative experience. You think of the other families you have met who fondly attend to their loved one, and you look to the example of the sweet and independent residents you have met in the facility you chose.

At the same time, you remember the poor lost souls who have no one to visit, no one to bring them shakes and sandwiches, no one to advocate on their behalf and protect their interests. And you are glad you could be there for your family member and provide some assurance and protection. You realize in the end that is their greatest comfort in their darkest hours.

And you gaze into the future and see yourself. You know you should save more money. You worry about burdening your own children or family in the future. And the chill you feel running down your spine is because you see yourself in that bed someday, begging family to “take me home”.

And you pray you will handle it with dignity.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be reached at