So many factors determine the ease with which a loved one makes the transition into long-term care a successful one. First, the health of the individual in question, mental and physical. Second, making her surroundings comfortable, with familiar items flanking her left and right. Third, the culture of the care home where the loved one is now residing. Finally, the effort family and friends put into making themselves and loved ones feel as if they now are simply part of a larger family.
This thought occurred to me, as a lesson learned over time. I have been managing my mother’s care since she transitioned into a care home in July, 2012. Mom went into the care home, a grieving, but not remembering wife, with little or no physical challenges, as she had already put cancer, G/I and thyroid challenges behind her.
Mom entered her next place surrounded by the fuzzy green afghan she used to cover up with while napping on the crème couch at home, a body pillow for her security at night, something she could cuddle up to, and a baby doll, which she can still lavish her love upon when she needs.
While the culture of her first care home was less than desirable – for where she was in her disease - I soon moved her where she settled in promptly because she could wander outside spontaneously, attend community center events, including watching How Green Was My Valley if she wanted, and be herself with no restrictions.
But it’s the final point I contemplated, when I entered her care home for Ash Wednesday services. I had called earlier to inquire about timing of the service and was told three-ish because who adheres to a schedule when time is all you have.
About fifteen residents were watching a short film about Burma shave – “Dinah doesn’t / Treat him right / But if he’d / shave / Dyna-mite! / Burma-shave,” when I arrived. The pastor showed up at “three-ish” after braving snow and close to zero wind chill temperatures.
Pastor P. entered a room full of willing and not-so-willing because they kept forgetting participants, ready to share in the glory of the Lenten season. He knew and greeted each resident by name, and for the most part, recalled the names of family members. I glanced around, surprising myself by acknowledging the names of those residents as well.
We had formed our own sort of family at Mom’s care home.
It’s a blend of work-family life. Work, because when loved ones arrive to visit, while it should be pleasureable, none of us have tricked ourselves into believing it will be all pleasure. There are many painful moments and pain is work.
Work because I sometimes spend more time conversing with other’s family members, swapping stories about their loved ones, as we are only the mouthpieces, the sieves through which the essence of our loves one’s life gets distilled. Work because getting to know the staff, their families as they know mine is relationship-building, and relationships take effort and time.
Pastor P always delivers on-point, audience-specific sermons, and usually includes a focus on thankfulness. When he opens up for the floor for the residents to speak of their gratitude, I am heartened by the responses. A few mentions involve whatever the weather is producing outside, whether sun or wind or rain. But the underlying message is residents still are moved by what is happening outside of them. My mom occasionally mentions the wallpaper border, for which I doubt she is thankful for, but she can point to it, and make commentary on its presence. It’s her contribution.
Most of all, one resident will inevitably call out, “Each other.”
“That’s right,” Pastor P will agree and extend his long arms, and as if scooping us all into his arms. “We are family. We are all family here. We take care of each other.”
The employees care for our loved ones. Earlier, the activities director had shared with me a photo of Mom, a photo which I know took great pains to capture, because Mom is like my dog, she doesn’t like to have her picture taken, she doesn’t understand the purpose. But the director did capture a photo worthy of going viral.
Residents and loved ones look out for each other. Many times, my greatest joy comes in observing the residents in how they treat each other, a touch on the arm, a pat on the back, and encouragement to walk down the hall, with no idea where they are going. Many times, my simplest joy comes in watching other families and loved ones interact with Mom, or vice versa, my interacting with someone else’s Mom, as if I am somehow giving respite to the family who is not there, still connecting.
And families give back to the caregivers. I have brought in Servatti cookies for Mom’s corridor, bought Chipotle lunch for the employees as a thank you and made the official family cookie, pizzelles, for the Sinatra impersonator party. My mother does not get better care because I am bribing the staff. Instead, I am thanking them, and thank you’s go a long way in boosting the morale so employees can be at their best for all residents.
So, after a loved one has settled in, its time for families to do the same. Fix yourself a cup of coffee, have a cookie (but not all). Watch a movie, sing along with the sing-a-longs. Attend communion service. Play Outburst, alongside the residents. Ease into your place in the family of care.