My mother and her nursing home

It’s really hard to be old.

I go to visit my very old mother in her Long Island nursing home every week, and I despair. She knows who she is and she knows who we are, but I see her having to rummage through the bundles of thick gray wool that surround her now and that drown her memories. She eventually finds that information – her children’s names! – but almost before she retrieves it, it slips back down into the wool and is lost again.

There is no joy left to her, as far as I and my siblings can see, and very little pleasure, and no hope. On the other hand, there also seems to be no fear. All those things take self-awareness, and she seems to have lost that.

We love her, and we look at her, and we try to see the smart, funny, alive person who used to be our mother, and we can’t find her. We miss her all the time, but we miss her most fiercely when we are with her, because that makes us remember what it is that we have lost.

But we get to leave that malodorous place where she lives, and she doesn’t, because as grim as it is — and this is a place that has a good reputation, and that I genuinely believe is much better than most — we cannot care for her ourselves. We do not have the resources — not the financial resources, nor the practical resources, nor the emotional resources. All we can do is ward off the guilt and try not to lose ourselves in the sadness.

When I visit my mother in her nursing home prison — no, not fair, in her new home, where caregivers take care of her, where we, her children, do what we can but her caregivers take care of her — I think of the simulation center at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. There is a room in that center set up to help us understand what it feels like to have dementia.

Participants put on shoes with things digging into their feet, because often old people have neuropathy. They put on thick gloves, because often old people lose their fine motor skills. They put on goggles that simulate the yellowish world that often is all that the elderly can see, and they put on headphones that pump in noises that often fill our elders’ ears. And then the room’s managers send these participants into the dimly lit space, with a set of jumbled instructions that would stymie the most clear-eyed among us.

I did not participate in that simulation. I just sat behind the glass and watched, observing the volunteers as I observe my mother, from the outside, with a combination of horror and pain and gratitude for not being inside.

It is a powerful exhibit that teaches necessary lessons; it’s meant for caregivers, healthcare workers, and the rest of us who understand that our senses and our relationship to the world around us will change, should we live long enough.

There are more old people now than there used to be. People are living longer. Many horrific diseases still are not curable, but they are slow-able. We do not yet have good ways to provide our elders with good lives, so we warehouse them.

And that is where the Jewish Home at Rockleigh comes in.

The Jewish Home is a beautiful place. Its windows let light blaze in, golden in the summertime, sharp in the winter. It not only is clean, it looks clean; it does not have the ghastly trick of being sterile but still looking dirty that most nursing homes have.

And that’s now. Once its new state-of-the-art building is done, and the short-term rehab patients moved from the main building into the new one, with its cutting-edge technology, the nursing home will be reconfigured.

And then we get to the question of what makes a home. Is a home where you live? Do prisoners with long sentences come to think of their cells as home? Probably they do. And nursing home residents are at home in the institution. That’s it for them. They are home. So anything that anyone can do to make that institution feel homey is doing actively good work.

Rockleigh will never be for everyone. It’s not big enough — and if it were, it would be an institution in which no one ever could feel at home.

The leaders at Rockleigh are working hard to make their residents feel at home in their home. We hope that they succeed, and that other nursing homes are able to use the model they develop.

It will be too late for my mother, but I hope in time for many other people.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)