Abby is 80 years old. It goes without saying that she is not as young and spry as she once was. Just last year, she had to leave her home and life of independence as she could no longer do the simple tasks that she used to be able to do so easily such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, driving, feeding herself, wiping herself, showering, and walking.
Now, she lives in a nursing home. Most everything has to be done for her. Admittedly, she doesn’t miss the cooking and cleaning and having to do laundry. She is most happy to have somebody else do those menial tasks. As for shopping, she has mixed feelings about that. Sure, it was no fun to have to buy groceries every few days. But she did miss going to the store and picking out a pretty outfit or treating herself to the occasional candy bar or knickknack for her house. Also, she missed being able to personally select what she wanted to eat. Here at the nursing home, her food is prepared for her. Sometimes it is extra tasty, sometimes it is not tasty at all, and sometimes it is just okay.
The lack of space is something she really misses. She used to have a whole house to move around in full of furniture and knickknacks and pictures. Now, she has half a room with one dresser, one small wardrobe, one hospital bed, one bedside table, one bulletin board, one easy chair, one medium-sized television with cable, one telephone (if she has the money to pay the phone bill) and one folding chair for visitors. She shares this room with a roommate who has the same. Abby was able to hang a couple of pictures and have a few knickknacks, but that was about it. There wasn’t room for anything else. She definitely misses her privacy and all the freedom and all the space.
Abby doesn’t really miss the driving. The last few years, driving felt rather hard and intimidating – not like when she was young. She was full of bravado and confidence when she used to drive as a young woman. Traffic jams, lots of cars and trucks on the road, going a few miles over the speed limit, listening to music and books on tape as she drove, all of that felt so easy and comfortable. As the years passed, it felt harder and harder. The fast cars started to feel intimidating. Her reflexes weren’t what they once were. Her vision and depth perception weren’t as good. She began to find excuses not to do as much driving as it began to feel hard and scary. So, no, Abby didn’t really miss the driving. However, she did miss the freedom to jump in her car at the spur of the moment should she have the desire to go to a movie, the library, a bookstore, to go shopping or out to eat, or to visit a family member or friend. Now, Abby has to wait for someone to come visit her. She has to wait for someone to be willing to take her along with her wheelchair to a store or restaurant. Truth be told, not only does that family member or friend have to be willing to take her, they have to have the strength to assist her in getting up from her wheelchair, help her shuffle and pivot so that she can sit down on the car seat without bumping her head, and then aid her in getting comfortable in the seat and buckling her in. Afterward, they have to have the strength and willingness to fold up the wheelchair and lift it into the car. Then when they arrive at their destination, they have to retrieve the wheelchair, get it open and set up, unbuckle her seat belt, and help her pivot and shift until she can safely make the transfer from car to wheelchair. As you can see, the whole thing takes a lot of extra time and effort and strength. Not many of her friends or family members have either the willingness or the ability to do that for her.
Privacy is something she really misses. When her kids were small, they often followed her into the bathroom when she had to use the toilet or shower. So, she did have the loss of some of her privacy then. But now, at the nursing home, she needs help do to all those personal tasks. Someone must diaper her, wipe her, help her onto the toilet, shower her, help her with brushing her teeth, washing her face, brushing her hair, putting on make-up, etc. All those tasks that she used to do so easily for herself are like insurmountable obstacles now. She needs assistance to do just about all of that. As for who it is that does that for her? She looks back and thinks about how she didn’t like to allow her husband to see her without make-up or to see her brushing her teeth, or getting dressed. She only wanted him to see her when she was carefully posed or dressed or groomed. At the nursing home, she can’t allow herself to be particular about who sees her in these most vulnerable of situations. Both male and female nurses are the ones who do all those care-giving tasks. Male nurses not only see her naked, they have to wipe her and wash her. That was one of the biggest adjustments she had to make. Abby had to forget all her inhibitions when she moved into the nursing home. That was quite a challenge for a woman who was raised to be prim and proper and above reproach.
Being patient and delayed gratification are two big challenges for most residents of nursing homes. When you are wheelchair bound, you either find a spot to roost, so to speak, in the hallway somewhere or in your room. When it is mealtime, you have to wait until a nurse arrives with your tray. When you go to the dining room to eat, you have to wait until they place your tray of food in front of you. When you have to go to the bathroom or need a pain pill or need something else from a nurse or caregiver, you have to push a button and wait until they notice the light above your doorway. It is hard to be patient and to understand that there is only a few of them and a whole bunch of nursing home residents who have probably pushed their light as well. So, Abby had to adjust to a life filled with lots of waiting and the necessity of learning patience. That had not been easy.
On the other hand, Abby was also a woman who liked to find things to celebrate about her life. She was raised to feel that ‘attitude of gratitude’ that Oprah is always talking about. She woke up one morning and realized that she had not done too much of that lately. There had been so many adjustments to make getting used to living in a nursing home, that she had spent the bulk of her time feeling rebellious and angry and depressed. So, on this particular morning, Abby woke up and realized that she needed to adjust her thinking and seek out all the blessings she could find in this new existence of her.
Abby thought, “Okay, what can I be grateful for?”
She thought carefully. “Well, Medicaid takes my entire social security check but $40 a month. So true, I only have enough money to pay for my cable bill and weekly hair appointments. However, I can be grateful that all my other expenses are taken care of. Sure, Medicaid will basically own my house after I die; but in the meantime, all my bills and other expenses are taken care of. I can be very grateful for that. Plus, my friends and family sometimes bring me pretty outfits or yummy things to eat. So, yes, I am grateful for that as well. What else?”
“Well, I used to have to work and do so many household tasks, I couldn’t watch all the television shows that I wanted to watch or read all the books that I wanted to read. Now, I can read magazines and books for as long as I like. Also, I can watch as much TV as I desire. They even have weekly movies with popcorn in the nursing home dining room. That’s kind of fun. What else?”
“I sometimes felt a little lonely in my house after my husband was gone. Now, if I want company, I simply have to call out to my roommate or she can call out to me. I can also push the button and a nurse or therapist will come to see what I want. Often, they stay and chat for a while after they bring me my food or change me or bring me my medicine. Sometimes, the activity director or therapist will come in for a chat. That’s kind of nice. Most of my caregivers are really sweet and caring. I can certainly be grateful for that.”
“Oh, I just thought of another blessing. Back when I lived at home, if I got aches and pains, I had to make an appointment with a doctor. Then I had to suffer until I finally got my appointment. If the aches and pains started on Friday afternoon, often, I had to be in pain all weekend long until they finally could squeeze me in for an emergency appointment on Monday. But here, if I get in pain, all I have to do is push the button. I tell the nurse. She goes and checks with the doctor. Within a few minutes or an hour at most, they get me a pain pill or anxiety pill or any other kind of medicine that the doctor authorizes would be okay for me to have. That certainly is a real benefit of living in a nursing home. What else?”
Abby thought and thought. “Oh, yeah. I just remembered another blessing. If I get hungry between meals, I can push the button. One of the nurses will bring me a bologna and cheese sandwich from the kitchen or some orange sherbet or ice cream. That’s another blessing for sure. Oh, plus, they always make sure I have plenty of ice water in my room all the time. That’s something else to be grateful for. What else?”
After thinking for a while, she remembered the various activities organized by the activity director. “Some of the concerts and storytelling and craft activities are really fun. What else?”
Abby thought about her family and friends. “They come visit me when they can. I bet they found it rather challenging to visit me when I was complaining and whining. I’m going to try to be more pleasant from now on, so they will enjoy their visits more. I bet they’ll enjoy helping me come up with more things that I can be grateful for and celebrate. Oh, I just remembered. My son is planning to come visit me today. I bet he will be pleased to see me greet him with a happy smile and bright eyes. I can joke with him like I did when he was young that I am all ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’. That will give him a laugh. I do love to laugh.”
Just thinking about laughing made Abby smile real big. She was smiling like that when a nurse walked in to give her a dose of medication. She said, “Abby, you have such a pretty smile. It looks like you are feeling pretty good today.”
Abby said, “Yes, Barbara, I am feeling good today. I’ve been concentrating on all the things I have to be grateful for. You are one of my blessings as you always are so sweet to me.”
Barbara blushed a little in pleasure. “Thank you, Abby. You sure made my day with that comment.”
The two women chatted for awhile before Barbara had to continue with her rounds.
Abby found herself humming quietly to herself. Then she remembered that one of her favorite shows was about to start. She grabbed the remote, pushed the button, and settled back in her wheelchair to enjoy the show.
She just knew that today was definitely going to be one of her good days.
Dedication: I dedicate this story to my widowed mother-in-law who is finding it a challenge to be a full-time resident of a nursing home due to her multiple health issues. She has good days and bad days. My husband and I both long to help her have many more good days than bad and to help her see the blessings in her life rather than belaboring her losses. I don’t know whether or not I will share this story with her. I write to understand. Perhaps I will have a bit more empathy after writing this story. Also, I hope it will be of some benefit to others. I wish all of you and your loved ones, old and young, all the best that life has to offer.
As a professional storyteller, I also perform stories and teach storytelling workshops at nursing homes. Please visit my storytelling website for more information or to book a performance: http://moredunntales.com.
Best Wishes to you and yours,
1190 Welcome Grove Road, Mosheim, TN 37818
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