I work in a place of death. People come here to die, and my co-workers and I care for them as they make their journeys. Sometimes these transitions take years or months. Other times, they take weeks or some short days. I count the time in shifts, in scheduled state visits, in the sham monthly meetings I never attend, in the announcements of the “Employee of the Month” (code word for best ass-kisser of the month), in the yearly pay increment of 20 cents per hour, and in the number of times I get called into the Human Resources office.
The nursing home residents also have their own rhythms. Their time is tracked by scheduled hospital visits; by the times when loved ones drop by to share a meal, to announce the arrival of a new grandchild, or to wait anxiously at their bedsides for heart-wrenching moments to pass. Their time is measured by transitions from processed food to pureed food, textures that match their increasing susceptibility to dysphagia. Their transitions are also measured by the changes from underwear to pull-ups and then to diapers. Even more than the loss of mobility, the use of diapers is often the most dreaded adaptation. For many people, lack of control over urinary functions and timing is the definitive mark of the loss of independence.
Many of the elderly I have worked with are, at least initially, aware of the transitions and respond with a myriad of emotions from shame and anger to depression, anxiety, and fear. Theirs was the generation that survived the Great Depression and fought the last “good war.” Aging was an anti-climactic twist to the purported grandeur and tumultuousness of their mid-twentieth-century youth.
“I am afraid to die. I don’t know where I will go,” a resident named Lara says to me, fear dilating her eyes.
“Lara, you will go to heaven. You will be happy,” I reply, holding the spoonful of pureed spinach to her lips. “Tell me about your son, Tobias.”
And so Lara begins, the same story of Tobias, of his obedience and intelligence, which I have heard over and over again for the past year. The son whom she loves, whose teenage portrait stands by her bedside. The son who has never visited, but whose name and memory calm Lara.
Lara is always on the lookout, especially for Alba and Mary, the two women with severe dementia who sit on both sides of her in the dining room. To find out if Alba is enjoying her meal, she will look to my co-worker Saskia to ask, “Is she eating? If she doesn’t want to, don’t force her to eat. She will eat when she is hungry.” Alba, always cheerful, smiles. Does she understand? Or is she in her usual upbeat mood? “Lara, Alba’s fine. With you watching out for her, of course she’s OK!” We giggle. These are small moments to be cherished.
In the nursing home, such moments are precious because they are accidental moments.
The residents run on stolen time. Alind, like me, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), comments, “Some of these residents are already dead before they come here.”
By “dead,” he is not referring to the degenerative effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease but to the sense of hopelessness and loneliness that many of the residents feel, not just because of physical pain, not just because of old age, but as a result of the isolation, the abandonment by loved ones, the anger of being caged within the walls of this institution. This banishment is hardly the ending they toiled for during their industrious youth.
By death, Alind was also referring to the many times “I’m sorry,” is uttered in embarrassment and the tearful shrieks of shame that sometimes follow when they soil their clothes. This is the dying to which we, nursing home workers, bear witness every day; the death that the home is expected, somehow, to reverse.
So management tries, through bowling, through bingo and checkers, through Frank Sinatra sing-a-longs, to resurrect what has been lost to time, migration, the exigencies of the market, and the capriciousness of life. They substitute hot tea and cookies with strangers for the warmth of family and friends. Loved ones occupied by the same patterns of migration, work, ambition, ease their worries and guilt with pictures and reports of their relatives in these settings. We, the CNAs, shuffle in and out of these staged moments, to carry the residents off for toileting. The music playing in the building’s only bright and airy room is not for us, the immigrants, the lower hands, to plan for or share with the residents. Ours is a labor confined to the bathroom, to the involuntary, lower functions of the body. Instead of people of color in uniformed scrubs, white women with pretty clothes are paid more to care for the leisure-time activities of the old white people. The monotony and stress of our tasks are ours to bear alone.
The nursing home bosses freeze the occasional, carefully selected, picture-perfect moments on the front pages of their brochures, exclaiming that their facility, one of a group of Catholic homes is, indeed, a place where ”life is appreciated,” where “we care for the dignity of the human person.” In reality, they have not tried to make that possible. Under poor conditions, we have improvised for genuine human connection to exist. How we do that the bosses do not understand.