We brought my mother to Golden Age to die, but she is thriving. After three months here she is eating and sometimes able to talk. We have fallen into a pattern of visiting her at lunch or supper time. At first my dad visited at mealtime to feed her and monitor her food intake, which also gave him something concrete to do during a visit. Since my mom eats so little, the two of them share one plate of food. As my brother pointed out, Dad would never pass up a free meal. Nothing here is actually “free,” since it costs close to $4,000 a month for my mom’s care. More likely, Dad doesn’t want to waste a meal he’s already paid for. My siblings and I try to offer Dad a day off from visiting Golden Age, so we see Mom for lunch or supper a few times a week.
If I were going to run assisted living for late-stage Alzheimer’s patients, I think today, coaxing my mom into another bite of mashed potatoes, I’d call it the Jack Kevorkian Home. Truth in advertising. My motto would be “If their minds are gone, we’ll let the body follow.” I feed my mom and think about what the hospice nurse told us many months ago, “She will likely die from dehydration when she stops eating and drinking. She’ll just slip away.” Most days she doesn’t know what to do with a spoon, so we feed her. That seems to be the protocol here.
Rita is skeletal and nearly comatose. She hasn’t been able to communicate for months. Still, she’s wheeled to the dining table and coaxed into eating and drinking a little bit each meal. A hospice volunteer comes to pray the Rosary with her nearly every Saturday, and her husband visits almost every day.
Frank’s room is next to the front door so each time I visit, I see him asleep in bed, his covers a snarl of blankets around his skinny legs. He sleeps all day with his tennis shoes on. At meal-time, he often staggers in with the front of his sweatpants damp with urine. He gives me a big smile when I wave at him from the end of the dining room table. The only time I’ve heard him speak was in response to a particularly good dessert: “Wow.” Or when I helped him sit down in the living room recliner: “Ka boom,” he said when his ass hit the cushion. Each resident is a mystery beyond what I can piece together from their rooms. Frank: tiny TV = few visitors. Inez: spoon collection and a hundred knick-knacks = she has no home to go back to.
One day at lunch Inez says to me, “I’m gonna kill you in the head. I’m gonna shit in your head.” I burst out laughing. She gets angrier. “I’m gonna kill you, you shit.”
A CNA comes over and pats her back. “Be nice, Inez.” It’s 90 degrees outside today, and
Inez is shivering in a long-sleeved thermal shirt and a thick sweater. I’ve never seen her without a knit cap on her head, even these last weeks of summer.
“Goddamn shit,” she says to me.
I put hotdish in my mom’s mouth. She is oblivious to Inez’s death threats. She chews and chews.
“I’m trying to protect my kids,” Inez says. “I love my kids. You stay away from them.”
It dawns on me that I may be a part of her flashback. I don’t know what to say.
Inez says, “You come near me, and I’m going to kill you. Don’t hurt the kids.”
“Inez,” I say. “I know you were a good mother. You always took great care of your kids. They are happy children.”
She is quiet a long time. I watch her move her hotdish around her plate.
“I have to shit, goddamnit,” she says.
I yell to the CNA, “Inez needs you.”
Whenever I’m alone with the residents at mealtime or in the livingroom—the two CNAs on duty are helping someone in the bathroom or they are out smoking together—I wonder what I’d do if a resident choked or went into cardiac arrest. Most of them wear a Do Not Resuscitate bracelet, the one true reminder of the person they used to be: a sound choice they made about their end of life long before they got here. I realize each time I visit that I’m becoming more and more concerned about these residents dying and less about my own mom dying. Better off dead, I think as I watch one or another resident each time I visit.
Today at the other dining table, Harvey sucks his milk through his straw, big drawn out slurps. His plate is nearly clean, which means he’ll get to have a post-dinner cigarette. Last week when he was smoking outside in his wheelchair I parked my mom near him in the sun, and he said to me in a pseudo-sexy voice: “You look really good today.” In his younger days I’m guessing Harvey cut a path through the ladies.
I imagine him as an aging McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, if McMurphy had avoided that lobotomy after all. If only Harvey could rally the residents here. I daydream as I mindlessly put a spoonful of noodles to my mom’s mouth. Harvey stands up and breaks into song: Louis Prima’s “Just a Gigolo.” Delores, self-assured as Marlene Dietrich in her well-fitted tuxedo, hops on the piano to accompany him. Frank, light on his feet—who would have guessed—pulls my mom up out of her wheelchair, and they swing. Mom is shy at first and then she shoots me a look that says, “Your dad won’t mind.” As Harvey sings on, an old lady flash mob ensues: walkers and wheelchairs tossed aside. Inez flings off her cardigan sweater to reveal, yes, a little black dress. Skeletal Rita, Rita whose face is a dull Oh, Rita is revived. She wears an evening gown, yellow chiffon, of course. Her face is full and flushed. She dances.
They all dance.