Lessons from the Third Floor

My mom is still recovering from her broken ankle in the rehab unit of a hospital. Tomorrow marks 5 weeks of her “confinement.” It’s the longest anyone in my family has ever spent in a “facility” (healthcare or otherwise), and my first experience with the day-to-day workings of such a place.

Aside from her stay confirming what I’ve always read and heard — that you have to be on top of every blessed detail of your loved one’s care, even though you are not a medical professional and he or she is in a (supposedly) skilled nursing unit — I am most struck by the other patients. Mum is one of the luckier ones. Sure, she has to use a wheelchair because she’s not strong enough to hop around with a walker (nor motivated to get strong enough through rehab, preferring to wait out her 14-week-non-weight-bearing sentence with some misguided idea that once those 14 weeks are up, she’ll be right back where she was before…living alone in her 3-story house, driving, playing cards twice a week with the girls, etc.). But she’s not ill as many of the others are. She doesn’t have a chronic disease, is still quite sharp for her 89 years, and has a large family to visit and watch out for her.

Many of the other patients aren’t so fortunate. Many are old and infirm. Some have been mentally or physically disabled (or both) since birth. Some have few or no visitors to break up the long days and nights. Many, many just want to be left alone, much to the chagrin of the “activities director” (à la Julie McCoy, your cruise director) who constantly cajoles, coaxes, physically moves, and otherwise “motivates” patients, trying to raise the slightest glimmer of interest in the games, puzzles, discussion groups, movie nights, and other activities he diligently plans “with no budget.” He’s a good guy fighting a losing battle, but he even gets on my nerves, and I’m only there a few hours a day at most.

Yesterday, I saw for the first time an old guy painting in the rec room where my mother and I go to play cards and Scrabble. The activities director had set him up there, with a few other patients around the table. He was hard of hearing and spoke loudly, so it wasn’t exactly like eaves-dropping. He talked about how he used to be an accomplished painter, had one oil painting that took him 4 months to complete exhibited in “the International”  (whatever that meant — I don’t think it was the Carnegie), and now all he could do was “slop around like this,” painting a dog house “a dog wouldn’t live in.” He was a hoot — about 96 he thought, though he couldn’t remember exactly. In his younger days he was an all-purpose contractor, doing painting, tiling, concrete, plastering — pretty much anything. Now he lived with his daughter (one of 2) and both were great to him, took him everywhere, etc. Of course, he added, “they know they get whatever’s left [when he’s gone]” although “they got money” already.

I really wanted to abandon the Scrabble game and go talk to him some more. He had me laughing at his dry comments, and reminded me of my own Grandpap. He was very matter-of-fact about his present state, a little wistful but not morbid in saying “I used to be able to do everything, but now I can’t do anything” and “You never know what you’ll do next.”

As one who has thought a lot lately about what the future holds and where I’ll end up “someday,” with no kids to see me through my dotage and no million stashed away to pay for long-term care, I’m glad to have this chance to glimpse what my own fast-forward might be like — maybe ill and infirm, maybe cheerful and pragmatic, maybe with my faculties intact, but maybe not. It makes you think, not just “holy cow I better save more money” thinking, but also about how fleeting our time here is, how it pays to make the most of your life so you have great things to look back on, and how attitude is everything. I can’t say I’m looking forward to old age, but, as they say, when you consider the alternative…

Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back
and realize they were the big things.
                                                                  ~ Robert Brault

1 Comment

  1. mel said,

    Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    aw, man. that old guy sounds like a hoot. (The International that I’ve heard of is a big show, the Carnegie International, that the Carnegie Museum of Art holds periodically. yearly? not sure. they had one in 1999, and I went–it had a big variety of exhibits, all different artists from all around the globe, I believe, etc. I guess it’s a big deal?)

    it’s a worry, aging–especially when these doctors keep helping people live so long nowadays. and having kids doesn’t guarantee much, if anything, from what I’ve seen. my gram made it to 99–she was two weeks away from 100 when she passed. if I have any of her genes, I’d better watch my step! but I hope to enjoy each day, too, or at least part of it if possible.

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