Thursday, June 29, 2017

You Too Will Be Old Someday

My beautiful Mom, 2016
Every time I go to the nursing home to see mom, I am reminded how self-absorbed and neglectful families have become in this country. For the last three years, on my weekly trips to see my mom, the patients, whose relatives never come by or only show up at Christmas to make sure they are still in the will, are sadly spinning their hours away in pain, loneliness, and suffering until the final moment when God calls them to Heaven.

Time is a precious commodity and people of all walks of life have become really selfish with their time. Senescence is an inconvenience in our western culture, not a source of wisdom and experience that we should seek and learn from. Many less developed cultures praise old age and respect the experience and knowledge gained from the long life of their elders. They don’t even have words in their language for nursing homes or assisted living, these are alien concepts. The tribe takes care of their sick and old.

The old men and women, who are now patients, were someone’s mom, dad, the soldier, the warrior, the teacher, the nurse, the home maker, the farmer, the mathematician, and the skilled builder who erected your home.  That someone seldom shows their face in the hallways to witness the pain, suffering, abuse, neglect, unsavory smells mixed with yells of help, to check on their loved ones, who were once strong, healthy, and full of life just like you.

We let poorly paid strangers from faraway lands feed mom and dad three meals a day of institutional food, bathe them, change their wet beds hopefully on time, their diapers, their outfits, wash and bleach their clothes to unrecognizable colors,  and give them medicine and proper care.

The nursing homes are always understaffed but it gets worse on weekends. As I limp in pain to see mom, I wished I could take her out of this place and have someone care for her in my home. But not every state pays for skilled nursing care at home. I can’t lift and do all the things for my mom that she needs, even though she has shrunk in size. No matter how many times I go visit her, or how hard I try to make her stay more home-like, it is never the same and I feel that I have failed her as a daughter and as a human being.

There are some patients who have outlived any immediate family or have never had any relatives to begin with. Nobody ever comes to see them. They are all alone in the world, sullen, and silent amid the cold and cruel world around them. Nobody notices them anymore and they seldom make eye contact.

I make a point to talk to some of them, touch them, bring a treat, and say hello. A twinkle of the former liveliness softens their furrowed faces, bringing out a short-lived smile. And a bit of sugar free chocolate sweetens the day, albeit it momentarily.

Catalina Grigore wrote recently about a 70-year old who died in a nursing home.  Having been Europeanized, Romania now has nursing homes, sad places where people go to die. The nurses did not like her, she seemed mean and uncommunicative. She left behind a pointed lesson in kindness that brought many to tears.

You see an old lady, senile, with strange habits, a sad face, lost eyes who mentally contemplates times gone by, forced to do things she does not want to do, and stubborn. You think, she interferes with your daily routine, and that’s irritating, but you have no idea who she was or how she got there.

Inside she is the naughty child she used to be, skipping, jumping rope, and climbing trees in her grandma’s back yard; she is the beautiful twenty year-old who just graduated from college, in love, engaged, and soon to be married; she is the forty year-old with kids who are now adolescents; she is the fifty year-old crying into the pillow at night because her house is empty, the children’s laughter is gone, the nest is empty, and the life that revolved entirely around them is now gone; she is the sixty year-old who took care of and spoiled her grandbabies; and she does not know how she got to be seventy and then eighty, and so sick and lonely.

Everybody abandoned her – they either died or moved away and forgot her while living their busy lives.  Her husband passed away and she is frightened. She is now old, no longer the vibrant young woman who could move mountains. She is no longer a mom, a wife, a grandma, a sister, or an aunt. She is just a door number in the nursing home. Her name appears on a small plaque but the nursing staff calls her by her door number. It is much easier than trying to pronounce her foreign name.

Mother Nature is cruel – it robs us in the end of all that makes life worth living. Strength, health, youth, stamina, and joy of living abandon us.

In her moments of clarity, I asked my mom how she felt about her treatment in the nursing home. What she said brought me to tears.

“We are still young inside and healthy, dressed in our finest, ready to go shopping, to work, to a fine restaurant, dancing the night away at a party, loving and living.  But the nursing staff treats us with contempt because we are helpless. They argue with us to do their bidding. They want their shift to go smoothly and fast. Can you not see my soul and my crushed desires behind my shaking hands and my wrinkled face? I lost my children, my family, and everything I’ve ever loved; can you not be patient and kind with me? I don’t have much left in this world, just this old, aching, body who does not want to respond to movement. We are not ready to die and we certainly don’t want to die alone next to strangers.”

Just remember, if you live long enough, you too will be old someday, at the mercy of strangers, helpless, racked with pain, and arthritic.



  1. A beautiful and thoughtful writing, Iliana. It is indeed sad what we do with our elderly. I have lived in societies that not only honor their elderly but celebrate them in death as if they were still alive. It seemed very odd to see an extended family with picnic baskets and cloths celebrating on their relatives graves, but it is a very noble act of love, reverence and respect.

    1. We took turns to care for my paternal grandma. She had eight kids so she could choose rotations of eight families. Fortunately, she was very little, very active, and died a natural death, she was never sick. My maternal grandma was not ambulatory, she had no knees left from arthritis. She died in her home from a bleeding ulcer which was exacerbated by the village nurse who gave her aspirin for pain.