When I was little, I used to love spending the night with both sets of grandparents. Spending the night with Grandmother and Granddaddy usually involved playing with my friend Robyn who lived next door to them, reading and reading and reading on the couch, sleeping in the pink room, gravy and biscuits for breakfast, and playing made-up games on the pool table in the slightly scary basement, and Grandmother’s famous chocolate chip cookies at some point during the adventure. Last week I got to spend the night with Grandmother again, twice actually, but it was much much different.
My grandmother had a stroke last December. After spending several weeks in two different hospitals, she moved to her current “home”, Somerset Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. My mom and her brother and sister, and until recently my Granddaddy, have spent the past nine months coordinating their schedules so that one of them is always with her, day and night. My sister and possibly one or two others have also helped out when needed, but although we have visited every time we’ve been to Somerset, until last week I hadn’t stayed with her by myself. My granddaddy had surgery last week to remove a brain tumor, and suddenly the family needed to be two places at once. I was able to spend some time in Somerset and got to stay with Grandmother some while they were at the hospital with Granddaddy. I felt privileged to finally get to help show love to Grandmother in this way.
For the record, nursing homes have never been on my list of favorite places. I used to visit fairly frequently as a child, either with GA’s or children’s choir or Christmas caroling, or with my dance classes when we would perform our recital routines for the residents. But I was always very nervous. Since Grandmother has been there, it’s changed somewhat but not completely. On one hand I enjoy visiting her because her face lights up when we walk in the room. She loves to see my kiddos, and they are too little to be afraid. They talk to her and sing for her and bounce around her room like nothing is out of the ordinary at all. Elisabeth especially walks right up to her and gives her a big hug and starts talking to her. If Grandmother tries to answer back, we won’t understand what she says, but instead of getting upset or confused, Elisabeth just giggles at her which makes Grandmother giggle back. She plays with Samuel and Silas, grabbing their hands when they give her high fives, or, like the other day, grabbing Samuel’s foot as he rolls around on her bed. But it is very very hard to see her looking absolutely normal, sitting up and wearing the same clothes she used to wear, laughing the same laugh, even saying, “Well!” in the same tone when we walk in–but then she starts to talk to us and nothing intelligible comes out. I would give anything to know what she’s saying to us, to see her stand up and give me a hug, to watch her uncurl the fingers on her right hand.
So while I was eager to help, I was also nervous about staying all night with her by myself. I got there Wednesday afternoon about 2:00, said goodbye to my uncle, and settled into the recliner. We had a little over two hours until time to go to the dining room. We “chatted” a bit, which involved me making small talk to her and not understanding her answer, or her trying to tell me something and me trying to guess what she was saying. The speech therapist came in to work with her, which was really neat because since she mimics many more words than she says spontaneously, I got to hear her say things I hadn’t heard this whole time, including singing “In the Garden” with the therapist. The time passed slowly, but it passed and it was time to move to the dining room. Here we ran into problems. She was obviously trying to ask me something, and I couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t get her to agree to go eat. She also made it clear that she didn’t want a tray in her room. After several texts with my mom, I finally took her advice and just pushed her to the dining room anyway. She let me take her, but as we sat waiting on her dinner, she periodically kept asking me the same question. I could tell she was asking something about me, and all I could think to tell her was that it was ok, Dad was going to bring me some food later. She ate her dinner, and we went back to her room, where she spent the next hour asking me the same thing until my dad finally brought my food, at which point she seemed relieved and didn’t ask that question anymore. It hit me then that this is just Grandmother. She might not move around or speak like she used to, but it still really bothered her to eat without making sure I was taken care of. She just wanted to make sure that I would get to eat too.
After that I relaxed some, and we made out pretty well the rest of that night as well as Friday night. If she had been quiet for awhile, I would ask her if she needed anything and then ask different questions until I figured out the answer. If she started talking to me, she would usually point and gesture enough that I would eventually figure out what she was saying. We watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, just like we used to at her house. The hardest moments were when the aides came in to take her to the bathroom or change her clothes or give her medicine. They were nice and kind for the most part, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was very condescending to hear the voice that they used and the way they called her “Sweetie” or “Granny” or “Baby Doll.” I cringed every time. My grandmother was a very dignified lady when she was caring for herself, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she felt some humiliation at having to be helped in those very private moments, and in the way they talked to her as they helped her. She doesn’t speak well but she understands much. It was hard for me to see that. As I semi-slept in the recliner both nights, I felt like I was being granted a rare insider’s view. A view into what it’s been like for my mom and granddaddy and aunt and uncle all these months, but also just a tiny glimmer into what it’s been like for Grandmother. She who has given the bulk of her time and energy for the past 64 years caring for those she loves must now depend on strangers for her most basic needs while her family can do nothing but watch. I felt so sad for her, and I realized that that nursing home and all others are full–not of scary old people who may not make much sense when they talk–but of grandmothers and granddaddies, moms and dads. Life has changed drastically for them, but they are still the same people who need and deserve the same love and respect.
When I went back on Friday, as I sat in the dining room after dinner listening to a church group singing for the residents, I looked around the room watching them–finally seeing them as individuals instead of a faceless group–as they listened. Some sat like Grandmother, expressionless for the most part, but most of them were singing. Every word, every verse. Even Grandmother sang when they got to “In the Garden”, when my mom was there to help draw her in better than I was doing. I used to go sing at nursing homes and always quietly wonder why we were doing that. But now I see. The music draws out of them what the mundane daily routines cannot. They remember these songs, and the music reaches the part of them that has not changed. And they respond to it. The singing in that room would never have won any worldly awards, but it was one of the best forms of “joyful noise” I’ve ever heard.
As hard as it was to have to see firsthand exactly what life is like for Grandmother since her stroke, as hard as it was to remember the way she used to be and see how little of her former life has been carried over, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to spend the night with Grandmother once more. Some things you can never know without experiencing them firsthand, and I never realized how–for lack of a better word–“real” the people in the nursing homes really are. It’s easy to go in, sing your songs, and leave, never really looking at them or interacting with them at all. But they are people. And one of them is my grandmother, and I look forward to my next trip to Somerset so I can spend time with her again.