My mom has lived at Golden Age for fourteen months. Today I try to recall all of the residents who have died since she moved here. Stephanie and Delores II were separated by so few days that I can’t remember who died first. Then came Inez, who swore like a sailor at everyone, including her family. They rarely visited, but they were on a round-the-clock death watch for at least a week before she died. Then a former police chief who wore his officer’s cap to dinner each night and passed away within weeks of arriving, too soon for me to learn or remember his name. William or Wally. Then Evie, whose neighbor was her caretaker, and each day at Golden Age Evie wailed for Sandy like no child has ever cried for her mother. Sandy moved Evie closer to home after just two weeks at Golden Age, and I read in the paper that she died a month later. Then Cliff, who was so angry his first month here that he refused to eat or get out of bed. He lasted months. Pearl left Golden Age when she broke her hip, and she died at another nursing home a few weeks later. Harvey died at Golden Age on Christmas eve. Carmel stayed hours after her shift just to sit with him and hold his hand, and he died after she left. No one claimed his body or held a funeral. Then Rita, who wasted away to a breathing skeleton and died in a morphine haze. I almost forgot that Eugene was the first, just weeks after my mom moved in. He was transported to a different nursing home because of his heart ailment, and he died there.
Ten residents from this fifteen-bed center died last year. A friend recently told me that nursing homes are “waiting rooms for heaven.” Today I look around, and I am sure this is purgatory.
I’ve just finished plucking Mom’s wiry chin whiskers as she sits, content, in her wheelchair. When I was a girl I always plucked her eyebrows, and I promised her she wouldn’t grow a granny beard on my watch. The summer heat wave has finally lifted, and it’s heavenly to be outside this afternoon. Wilma walks near me.
“Hi, Wilma,” I say.
“Is that me?” she asks.
“Yes, it is,” I say gently.
“Hi,” she says.
Wilma’s jeans are pressed, a small detail which tells me that someone loves her very much.
Eunice arrived a week before Wilma, and she is one of a few residents here because of physical ailments, not Alzheimer’s. Today she sits in her wheelchair in the shade, wrapped in a blanket. Eunice’s right leg has ballooned to double its size. She tells me about her edema and about her old apartment, her first and last husbands, about her kids. When I tell her I live in Lake Hallie, she says that her son, Steve, sings karaoke at Two Waters Bar near my house. “Do you know him?”
“No,” I say. “I haven’t met him.”
“Does your mom ever talk?” Eunice asks.
“Not so much,” I say.
Earlier today Wilma wouldn’t touch her plate of food. The other residents at her table, Helen and Irene, one on each side of her, took turns telling Wilma, “You have to eat” or “My doctor says you should eat.”
I put a straw to my mom’s lips, hoping that her ability to suck, a primitive reflex, will soon give out. I wish this every day. I throw a telepathic message Wilma’s way: “Don’t ever eat again, Wilma. You’re one skinny granny. It won’t take long.” She can still walk and talk, though she’s often in a recliner in the communal living room, gazing out the window with a pensive look on her face. Now she dozes beside me in the sun.
I’m not a right-to-die zealot who wants to kill off everybody’s demented grandma before she becomes too much of a “burden.” I’m just a daughter who has watched her mother’s quality of life diminish over the past nine years. And I’m a realist. So much money is spent on an existence which most of these late-stage patients would not want for themselves if they were aware enough to make a choice. Would anyone?
The estimated cost of caring for Alzheimer’s patients in the United States in 2012 is $200 billion including $140 billion paid by Medicare and Medicaid, to which we’re all contributing. One in eight Americans currently suffers from the disease, and that number will increase substantially as Baby Boomers age. On a long enough timeline, the majority of us may have some form of dementia. Currently half of all Americans over age 85 suffer from it.
Many patients, like Wilma and my mom, don’t know their own names anymore or how to clean themselves or even what food means. The staff who care for them at Golden Age are paid just above minimum wage—certainly not a living wage even in our small town. Still, someone is getting rich off of the crowds of Alzheimer’s patients here and in nursing homes all over the country. At $4,000 or more per month at Golden Age, keeping alive residents like my mom and Wilma is a lucrative business. Today I think in the simplest terms: it would cost nothing to stop feeding them.
While Wilma and Eunice and my mom and I sit outside Golden Age, a barefooted man walks down the road. We sit here day after day and nothing happens, and now this: as he gets closer I can see he has an animal held in his thick work gloves. The critter is the size of a squirrel, and he’s carrying it straight-armed and away from his body, like someone might hold a screaming two-year-old or a baby with a full diaper. His gloves are placed under this small animal’s front paws and all of its fur is collected in wrinkles around its jowls. Its fuzzy tail hangs down. I nearly start laughing. What a show for us, on this dead-end road that branches off to the river or to another nursing home.
When he gets closer, I say, “What do you got there?”
“It’s a muskrat,” he says. “I found it in my apartment.”
“Really,” I say.
He says, “I’m taking it back to the river.”
He keeps walking towards me, and I can see that this animal is most definitely not a muskrat. My husband and I have battled muskrats since we moved to Lake Hallie. They ate our flowers even as we screamed at them from the deck. We’ve had the fat bastards in the site of our pellet gun or cross-bow pistol enough to know exactly what they look like.
This critter may be a weasel or even someone’s pet ferret, an animal more likely to show up unannounced in an adjoining apartment. I don’t say anything as he walks past us to the water. He thinks he’s helping, returning a river rat to the river.