Weekly Challenge: My Greatest Regret – Nursing Home Guilt

Hindsight is 20-20
I can still conjure up the smell of the place: a mix of stale air and antiseptic, faint tinge of urine and body odor, with a light dusting of air freshener.  During my high school years I worked in the kitchen of a nursing home.

Elder care and rehabilitation were different then, with the latter scarcely existing and the former not yet carved into distinct niches.  My parents, now in their late 80s, reside in a senior living community.  They live in a 2-bedroom apartment.  The building has two dining facilities, both run like restaurants, for when they don’t want to cook.  A full slate of activities is offered, including concerts, discussion groups, field trips, and classes.  If needed, rehabilitation and assisted living care are available.  I like going there for dinner; the dining room has a top notch chef and the meals are the equal of a fine restaurant.

The nursing home I worked in was an institution, and not a nice one.  Rooms had tile floors and were furnished with beds, dressers and a chair.  They looked like temporary rooms, but for most of the people there this was their permanent and final living space. 

Within those small, sad rooms were a mixture of people.  There were bed-ridden individuals no longer cognizant of whom or where they were, simply waiting to die.  Some people were deep into dementia, wandering around in worlds of their own making.  A surprisingly large number seemed fine, and I couldn’t figure out why they had to live there.  I learned, later, than some had been institutionalized for years in the large mental hospitals that still existed then. Others were physically frail and just needed a bit of help.  A few people were there temporarily, recovering from strokes or other ailments.

Pictures still live in my mind: a woman there for rehabilitation after a massive stroke, eating dinner in the dining room with her husband, breaking down in tears; a man who would spend hours in the empty dining room playing  jazz tunes on the piano and smoking cigarettes; the Swiss truck driver, missing both legs from an accident, telling me to be grateful for having a family as he had none; the frail older woman with dementia who would ask us for extra food for her family, who she was convinced were being held hostage by Nazis. 

I would sit and talk with them, coming in early some days, even visiting when I wasn’t scheduled to work.  The food we served them was terrible; bad even for institutional, cheap as possible and designed to make a profit.  When I graduated high school several of the residents gave me a small party; I still have the card, signed with shakily written names.  I went home and cried that night.

I am now closer in age to those residents than to that young girl serving dinner and washing dishes.  I worked there 40 years ago; there are not 40 more years in my future.  At some point, perhaps sooner than I expect, I will be that older person needing help.  I don’t want to live to the point where I end up helpless, dependent on the good will of others and the luck of being in the right place or having enough money to ensure decent care.  My nightmares have changed; where they used to focus on my time working in that nursing home, they now feature me as a resident. 

I wish I’d acted differently.  I wish I exposed the terrible conditions, taken pictures, called the newspapers, arranged for a film crew to come in.  I could have provided a voice to these people; brought in a tape recorder and captured their stories.  Instead, I did nothing.   I followed the rules.  The rules of conduct for a part-time, high school age employee to just do as I was told. The rules for girls that stressed being supportive and kind, but never confrontational.   Back then, my 15 year old self lacked the courage to break those rules.  The lesson I learned (apart from the one to not live longer than your money, health or mind) was that there are times when rules should be broken, when the right decision is to do what the rules say is the wrong thing.