“He liked BINGO,” Mom told me between bites of lemon oregano chicken.
“What’s that?” I asked. Mom’s dysarthria, an unwelcome leftover from her stroke four years ago, sometimes makes it hard for me to understand her. “Can you say it again?”
“He liked BINGO,” Mom repeated. “George.”
“Oh yeah, I saw him playing BINGO with you up on the second floor a couple of times.”
Mom was still processing the news of George’s death, which I’d delivered when we first sat down for lunch. She normally eats in Harmony Hall, where all the health center and memory care residents eat together. But on Wednesdays, I meet her after Bible study and push her wheelchair down to the main dining room for a change of scenery.
“Where did you read that he’d died?” Mom asked, fumbling her glass of milk toward her and eventually finding her mouth with the straw.
“In the paper,” I said, helping her hold the glass steady. “The online county paper. They had an obituary. He died last week.”
“He never came back from the hospital,” Mom said. And it was true. George had left in an ambulance three weeks earlier and his side of the room had remained empty since. He lived three doors down from Mom.
This week it was George. A few weeks before that it was Helen, and Mary before her. Plus Dick, John, Joanne, April, Mary Lou. Some had lived in assisted living, where Mom first landed when we decided to get more help, but most were residents of the nursing center, where Mom now lives. They were there because they were falling or forgetful, because they couldn’t get around on their own anymore or because the family members who’d taken care of them were gone now too or couldn’t manage on their own. They came with just a few possessions―some clothes, shoes, a few pictures, maybe a chair―and they filled a bed in the facility that someone before them had vacated.
They got their medicines, three meals a day, two showers a week, and help to the bathroom when they needed it. If they wanted, they received manicures and attended tea parties, played BINGO three times a week, and drank beers at happy hour. When they left for the final time, usually in an ambulance, sometimes a hearse, someone else would come to fill their spot.
That’s how Mom got her place on F-wing, the same for Trixie and J.P, Nancy and Louise. Before Mom’s room opened up, there was a waiting list. A list someone on the other side didn’t want to be on.
“Your mom’s so lucky to have you,” the executive director told me from across his desk. I’d unexpectedly lodged a complaint of Mom’s missing shower all the way to the top when the director of nursing had been unavailable to see me. “So many residents have no one.”
“Well I’m not asking for Mom to get special treatment,” I said. “I just think two showers in one week is the absolute minimum. For everyone.”
“Yes, of course,” he replied. “We treat everyone the same. It’s just sad that some people have no one.”
I can guess who some of those people are: maybe the ones who are noncommunicative and confused, or those who can’t feed themselves, or tell someone when they need to urinate. While I’m there with Mom four or five days a week, I rarely see anyone visiting them. Or maybe they are the ones who drive themselves around the floor in electric-powered wheelchairs, but rarely have visitors. Do they have someone to advocate for them? I’d never seen anyone visit George, either, until the day he was taken to the hospital.
But things aren’t always as they seem. Helen, who died just a week before George, had no family in the area, but she had a friend who spent hours walking with her down the hallways and making sure she had what she needed. Her friend also stopped to check on Mom occasionally. Mary Lou lived in assisted living for almost a year, apparently healthy enough to get around on her own. But that arrangement worked only because her son Bob visited every day, keeping her stocked up on food, medicine, and chocolate. Mom still has a couple of those same chocolate bars herself, after Mary Lou shared. And Trixie, who seems mostly alone, wheeling around in her electric-powered wheelchair, often watching TV or working puzzles in the living room, has several friends who visit occasionally on weekends, but when they come, they stay for several days, even playing BINGO with the residents and helping Mom with her card too.
When it comes down to it, I don’t know who has someone and who doesn’t. But I do know this: it doesn’t really matter. When I can’t be there, I appreciate that other residents’ friends and family members visit with Mom and help her. And I try to do the same for their loved ones or for the ones who have no one. In fact, when one of the directors or nurses says to me, “Your mom’s lucky to have you because some people have no one,” I now simply say, “Well, then, I’m here for them too.”
On Mondays, I visit Mom right before dinner, and lately, she’s asked me to stay until after the aides help her to the bathroom so I can wheel her down to the dining room. I think she likes the way I straighten up her room before we leave so everything will be in order when she gets back.
This past Monday, just before we left for the dining room, Opal accidentally wheeled herself into Mom’s room.
“I think you’re in the wrong room,” I told her, but she kept moving toward me as if I weren’t even there.
“Are you ready for dinner?” I asked, she perked up, her rheumy eyes suddenly registering my presence.
“Can I help you?”
She nodded. Since I didn’t know where she sits, I wheeled her down in front of the nurses’ station, where I knew someone would help her from there.
“Wait here, okay?” I said, placing a hand softly on her shoulder. And she nodded.
I went back to get Mom, wheeling her to the dining room and locking her chair in the spot where she always sits. As I poured her water, I chitchatted with Nancy and Geri, making sure their glasses were filled too.
“I hope dinner is good tonight,” I said.
“I think it’s split pea soup,” Nancy said, grinning. And the whole table groaned.
“They don’t like split pea soup,” she said, laughing now. We all started laughing too.
“I think Nancy’s trying to cause a little trouble.” I flashed a grin in Nancy’s direction.
“She already has,” Geri said, her lazy eyes finally focusing on me. “Do you work here?”
“No, I’m Micky’s daughter,” I remind her. We’ve “met” dozens of times. “But I might be able to help you.”
“When are they going to have mushroom soup?”
Just then, one of the aides walked up, and I left the mushroom soup question to her. I kissed Mom on the head and walked back toward her room to get my purse.
Just as I got back to F-wing, I saw Bob struggling to get himself to the dining room in his wheelchair. As I often do, I asked him if he needed a lift, and he nodded and shrugged. I’ve learned that means yes. So he used his good leg to scoop up his bad one, and I pushed him to his spot too.
At the very least, this is how I’m there for all of them: helping and listening, praying and even laughing. Legally, I’m not allowed to know the details of those who have no one to speak up for them. In that way, I can’t really step in as their advocate. I can’t ask to see care plans or monitor medication adherence or insist that a missed shower be made up. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see them and honor them when I’m walking the hallways and sitting with Mom. It doesn’t mean I can’t read to them and work puzzles together and listen when they’re hurting. And when things aren’t done for Mom the way they should be, I don’t just insist that she get the care she deserves. I ask for all of them, inquiring about protocols and accountability, staffing levels and absenteeism, and even about working conditions for the staff, who do so much and are paid so little.
Every time I’m there for Mom, I try to be there for someone else, too.
I used to try to be there for George, whom I’d first met when Mom was in assisted living. He’d only recently moved to the nursing center after his Parkinson’s disease had progressed. I’d see him sitting in the living room of F-wing, and I’d ask how things were going.
The first few times, he said things were hard. He’d had a bad day.
But then things started getting a little better. Maybe not in his body, as we now know, but in his spirit. He was getting used to his new living conditions. The people were friendly.
And of course, he had BINGO three times a week.
*The names of the residents have been changed to protect their privacy.