Submitted by Chet
Three years ago my Father found my grandmother laying in the bathroom of her home while doing his usual nightly checkup on her. Rosary in hand, she calmly prayed for Jesus to take her home. My Dad called the ambulance and she survived with just a head wound. Unfortunately this incident followed closely after my Dad being forced to take away her keys and the family noticing a decline in her ability to do the things of day to day life. It was clear she could no longer live alone.
The elders of the family got together and discussed next steps. While my grandmother hated the thought of a nursing home, there were few options. My father already took care full-time of an invalid, my aunt offered her house but my grandmother refused to leave the state, and the eldest brother could not agree to let her in due to the constant friction between his mother and his wife. Her dwindling retirement funds made in-home care seem implausible. They finally reluctantly agreed on a retirement home that my grandmother on the other side of the family went to when her dementia became too severe for the family to keep her safe, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. Dad told me, with little enthusiasm, that she will be happy there like my other grandmother was, and they did their best.
The first year had a lot of tension, as my grandmother was under the impression that she would be going back to her own house soon and grew impatient as the weeks passed. She grew angry with the eldest brother, who she felt betrayed him. The nursing home changed their management, and my Dad started hinting that the help wasn’t what he remembered. The food went from reasonable cafeteria cuisine to bland slop, and the younger staff went from cheerful and helping to distant and cold.
When I arrived with my family, we walked into her room, the food from breakfast still on the dinner tray, and the room unusually dark with only a single lamp. WE had nice visit, playing Uno and catching her up on our lives. As we exited through the hallways we felt a sterile coldness about us, and the staff did little to ease this stress. Their demeanor lacking any warmth, and we couldn’t help but feel they saw visitors like us as another inconvenience.
My Dad called a couple months before Covid hit to tell me that they were moving my grandmother to another nursing home, one more expensive and far away but “much, much, better”, he promised. We never got over there to see her before the pandemic forced the nursing home into a strict lockdown. The family could only communicate their phone calls for some time, and there was a dark unease about how she was being treated. My Dad just assured me that this place was good, and we had nothing to worry about. I knew, though, he didn’t believe that himself.
In the fall, restrictions relaxed enough where they would allow visitors outside, and we took the opportunity. My Dad told me to just give them a little bit of notice so they would be able to get her ready, which now took some time. I called first in the morning, getting directed from the lobby to a nurse who supposedly was in charge of her for the shift. She said my grandmother would be outside at 3:00p.m., just as we asked. We started our 2 hour drive to the nursing home, and my wife called to ensure the date was still set. She was redirected a couple of times as before, then got a different nurse, who told us she was not aware of our previous call but would make sure she was ready.
We looked at each other in confusion, but I shrugged it off as a simple mishap and continued to the nursing home. There were two main entrances, and we had no idea on which one our grandmother was going to be. My wife queried some nurses walking out of the building, only to be rebuffed with “We’re off duty”, before my wife was even able to ask her question.
I went to one of the lobbies and inquired to a nurse where my grandmother was going to be, and she replied she was not aware she needed to be anywhere. She checked the computer and saw no record of our calls. She said they’d be sure to get her, but it would take awhile as she was asleep.
So we sat, me, my wife, and our three young children under six, for half an hour. We finally saw the door open and gazed at the sad looking old-woman coming out in her walker, barely recognizable as my grandmother. Her hair was completely unkempt, ratty like it hadn’t been combed in weeks, and far too long. They neglected to put her dentures in, meaning she had trouble speaking. They did not put her glasses on, meaning she could barely see us. Finally, they didn’t put her hearing aid in, meaning she could barely hear us. We struggled with conversation for about an hour but still managed to get some nice quality time in. In the end, she got to hold her great grandchildren, even though it was technically not allowed, and she felt happy and at peace. It was the last time she ever spoke to us.
A month later my Dad emailed saying she was going downhill and it would be good to come over sometime soon. We got in the car and drove to the nursing home again. Upon getting there, I waited for my Dad, as he called on the way saying there was an incident. One of the staffers did not give my Grandmother her prescribed pain killers in the morning, and within a few hours she was in debilitating pain. My aunt stayed with my Grandmother as she screamed and bellowed in pain for hours as the nurse button went ignored and my aunt’s cries in the hallway went unanswered. By the time my Dad and I were in she was stabilized but unconscious. I sat down with her for a while even though she didn’t even know I was there.
A few days later my Dad called saying that she passed away. “They just gave her a morphine shot and her breathing just got weaker and weaker and stopped.” he said, sobbing. I knew what really happened. Whether he would admit to himself as much I don’t know, but I can still see the shock in my father, aunts, and uncles at the hell they witnessed in her last couple of years.
Maybe they didn’t consciously understand the changes that happened in their lifetime, but deep down they know something terrifying has happened to the country they grew up in. Their high trust society has been replaced by an impersonal, uncaring, bureaucratic hellscape that doesn’t even care about the most defenseless of our society.
For the new generation of nurses, their job is no longer a vocation, but a paycheck. Their patients are no longer people, but inconveniences. Their lives are no longer something that should be risked, but should be protected even more than the patients they are supposed to serve.
And my extended family knows the same thing that happened to Grandma may happen to all of us.
As the Covid ordeal is now almost over and people are taking down their signs hailing those brave front-line workers, I just want to say: Thank you health care heroes. I will always remember what you did.