Nursing Home Memoir "My World Now, Life in a Nursing Home, from the Inside"

The following is an essay written by Anna Mae Halgrim Seaver while she was living in a nursing home. It was discovered after she passed away as her son was cleaning out her room. Newsweek published the essay in 1994 and it remains powerful today.

"This is my world now. It’s all I have left. You see, I am old. And, I’m not as healthy as I used to be. I’m not necessarily happy with it but I accept it. Occasionally, a member of my family will stop in to see me. He or she will bring me some flowers or a little present, maybe a set of slippers – I’ve got eight pair. We’ll visit for a while and then they will return to the outside world and I’ll be alone again.

Oh, there are other people here in the nursing home. Residents, we’re called. The majority are about my age. I’m 84. Many are in wheelchairs. The lucky ones are passing through – a broken hip, a diseased heart, something has brought them here for rehabilitation. When they’re well they’ll be going home.

Most of us are aware of our plight – some are not. Varying stages of Alzheimer’s have robbed several of their mental capacities. We listen to endlessly repeated stories and questions. We meet them anew daily, hourly or more often. We smile and nod gracefully each time we hear a retelling. They seldom listen to my stories, so I’ve stopped trying.

The help here is basically pretty good, although there’s a large turnover. Just when I get comfortable with someone, he or she moves on to another job. I understand that. This is not the best job to have.

I don’t much like some of the physical things that happen to us. I don’t care much for a diaper. I seem to have lost the control acquired so diligently as a child. The difference is that I’m aware and embarrassed but I can’t do anything about it. I’ve had three children and I know it isn’t pleasant to clean another’s diaper. My husband used to wear a gas mask when he changed the kids. I wish I had one now.

Why do you thing the staff insists on talking baby talk when speaking to me? I understand English. I have a degree in music and am a certified teacher. Now I hear a lot of words that end in “y.” Is this how my kids felt? My hearing aid works fine. There is little need for anyone to position their face directly front of mine and raise their voice with those “y” words. Sometimes it takes longer for a meaning to sink in; sometimes my mind wanders when I am bored. But there’s no need to shout.

I tried once or twice to make my feelings known. I even shouted once. That gained me a reputation of being “crotchety.” Imagine me, crotchety. My children never heard me raise my voice. I surprised myself! After I’ve asked for help more than a dozen times and received nothing more than a dozen condescending smiles and a “Yes, deary, I’m working on it,” something begins to break. That time I wanted to be taken to a bathroom.

I’d love to go out for a meal, to travel again. I’d love to go to my own church, sing with my own choir. I’d love to visit my friends. Most of them are gone now or else they are in different “homes” of their children’s choosing. I’d love to play a good game of bridge but no one here seems to concentrate very well.

My children put me here for my own good. They said they would be able to visit me frequently. But they have their own lives to lead. That sounds normal. I don’t want to be a burden. They know that. But I would like to see them more. One of them is here in town. He visits as much as he can.

Something else I’ve learned to accept is loss of privacy. Quite often I’ll close my door when my roommate – imagine having a roommate at my age – is in the TV room. I do appreciate some time to myself and believe that I have earned at least that courtesy.

As I sit thinking or writing, one of the aides invariably opens the door unannounced and walks in as if I’m not there. Sometimes she even opens my drawers and begins rummaging around. Am I invisible? Have I lost my right to respect and dignity? What would happen if the roles were reversed? I am still a human being. I would like to be treated as one.

The meals are not what I would choose for myself. We get variety but we don’t get a choice. I am one of the fortunate ones who can still handle utensils. I remember eating off such cheap utensils in the Great Depression. I worked hard so I would not have to ever use them again. But here I am.

Did you ever sit in a wheel chair over an extended period of time? It’s not comfortable. The seat squeezes you into the middle and applies constant pressure on your hips. The armrests are too narrow and my arms slip off. I am luckier than some. Others are strapped into their chairs and abandoned in front of the TV – captive prisoners of daytime television; soap operas, talk shows and commercials.

One of the residents died today. He was a loner, who, at one time, started a business and developed a multimillion-dollar company. His children moved him here when he could no longer control his bowels. He didn’t talk to most of us. He often snapped at the aides as though they were his employees. But he just gave up; willed his own demise. The staff has made up his room and another man has moved in.

A typical day. Awakened by the woman in the next bed wheezing – a former chain smoker with asthma. Call an aide to wash me and place me in my wheelchair to wait for breakfast. Only 67 minutes until breakfast. I’ll wait. Breakfast in the dining area.

Most of the residents are in wheelchairs. Others use canes or walkers. Some sit and wonder what they are waiting for. First meal of the day. Only 3 hours and 26 minutes until lunch. Maybe I’ll sit around and wait for it. What is today? One day blends into the next until day and date mean nothing.

Let’s watch a little TV. Oprah and Phil and Geraldo and who cares if some transvestite is having trouble picking a color-coordinated wardrobe from his husband’s girlfriend’s mother’s collection. Lunch. Can’t wait. Dried something with pureed peas and coconut pudding. No wonder I’m losing weight!

Back to my semiprivate room for a little semiprivacy or a nap. I do need my beauty rest, company may come today. What is today, again? The afternoon drags into early evening. This used to be my favorite time of day. Things would wind down. I would kick off my shoes. Put my feet up on the coffee table. Pop open a bottle of Chablis and enjoy the fruits of my day’s labor with my husband. He’s gone. So is my health. This is my world."

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Robert W. Carter, Jr. is a Virginia attorney whose law practice is dedicated to protecting the rights of the victims of nursing home and assisted living neglect and abuse in Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk, Lynchburg, Danville, Charlottesville, and across Virginia.

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