A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Its Joys are Indescribable

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Visiting dogs Kiki and Maui help with cheering-up and healing.

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – The one crucial item for a stay in a nursing home is (and I’m sure this will surprise you) a back-scratcher. That may sound weird, but think about it. When you’re lying on your back for unaccustomed long periods of time, it itches. Seriously itches. And if, like me, you have a broken arm, you can’t get at it. Hence the back-scratcher. It’s a simple thing found in any hardware store or at the supermarket, but its joys are indescribable.

In addition, it extends your feeble reach by almost two feet. Cell phone power cord hanging from a wall plug four feet away? No problem. Reading light pull chain also out of reach? Not anymore. Likewise stuff dropped on the floor and unreachable, drag it within reach with your trusty back-scratcher. I’m amazed people don’t know this.

This is probably the last piece I will be writing here in the nursing home/rehab center. “Probably” because I’ve learned in the last month to count on almost nothing. There have been so many ups and downs in this process that it’s hard to believe this will be a sustained and unreversed up. Thus my daughter Martha is typing this column by the light at the end of the tunnel. Whether that light is daylight or an onrushing train we should know by this coming weekend. In either case, it’s been a hell of a ride.

I’m often amazed at the organizational ability required to operate systems that you and I take for granted: large airports, for example; airline schedules, supermarkets, and hospitals. This place astounds me in its ability to care for dozens and dozens of people of various ages and abilities and attitudes. From elderly folks like myself working toward returning to our homes, to the lovely 85-year-old woman I talked to today whose kids don’t want to take care of her (and who actually got a marriage proposal from a fellow resident recently – she turned him down), to others far gone in dementia whose lives I can barely imagine, they take care of ’em all.

The RNs on each wing sort the prescriptions and dispense them to the proper patients 24 hours a day, the licensed nursing assistants bring meal trays, often individualized, take them away, make beds, change diapers, and redirect “wanderers” back to the rooms they’re looking for. The organization it must take boggles my mind.

Meantime, on the rehabilitation front, my cheerful physical therapist shows up twice a day to put me through my paces. My first day here I had to be physically swung out of bed, lowered into a wheelchair, and lifted to my feet to grasp the handles of a walker, in which I covered 17 feet in two painful spasms of eight and nine. Today I walked briskly around the building behind Herschel and then up and down the cellar stairs. With my body’s great progress, a release date of this weekend seems likely. Notice I said “likely.”

Visitors have been a big boost to my morale. They bring goodies, books, the mail and newspapers (thank you, Martha and Todd!), and cheerful presences. The folks at the coffee shop sent me a very funny get-well card that’s posted on the bulletin board next to the menu and wi-fi password. My friend Bea brought a box of her special scones and 24 packets of Italian instant coffee that brighten the beginning of each day.

To see the rolling racks of meal trays coming down the hall three times a day is a mystery to me: I don’t know how they keep all that straight and moving. To see huge rolling carts of laundry going the opposite way down the hallway is equally impressive. They must run those machines day and night. Somebody must have to sort and fold all that laundry. All day long old people walk past my door, which I keep open on purpose, pushing walkers and followed by physical therapists pushing wheelchairs to catch them if they tire. I have nothing but admiration for those people, both those trying to walk and those helping and encouraging them.

I can’t see behind the scenes, but what I do see is a place of cheerfulness, acceptance, and healing. It’ll be a relief to be on my own, but I’ll miss this place. It was an oasis when I dearly needed one. It’d be difficult to express adequate appreciation for the cheerful LNAs who bring the meals, the RNs who bring me my meds and a glass of cold water, and the therapists who walk behind me uttering encouraging words. Then there’s the lovely nursing assistant whom I call Santa Maria who periodically runs me into the shower room and hoses me down with hot soapy water. It’ll be nice to shower on my own again, but I’ll tell you: This has been nice. And the back-scratcher’s going home with me!

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