Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

 July 17, 2005


Most people dread spending their last days in a nursing home


      In her last years my mother made sure her family understood one thing: she did not want to be put in a nursing home. Fortunately, we were able to honor her wish.

          It was not an easy task. Dad had died and Mama was alone, an invalid in a big house in the country. It would have been easier on the family to have placed her in a nursing home. But she was determined so we all pitched in and kept her in her own bed until she died in her 95th year.

          Mama was fortunate. She had four children, many grandchildren, relatives, and friends who took care of her when she could no longer care for herself. Some did more than others. Some were able to do more. I will never forget those who, without complaining, went beyond the call of duty when others of us were busy with our own lives.   

          The simple truth is that Mama would have spent her last days in a nursing home had it not been for my brother and his wife, my two sisters, and several other family members. They lived nearby and were able, and willing, to meet Mama’s needs when some of us were not available. I felt guilty, and still do, about not doing more than I did. Some guilt has a way of hanging around too long.

          I understood Mama’s fear of a nursing home. Most of us dread spending our last days in an institution, no matter how nice it is, and some are very nice.  People everywhere agree there is “no place like home.”  

          There are days now when Mama’s dread slips around my own shoulders. Fear is no respecter of persons. I brush it aside and tell it to go away, but like guilt it hangs around, dogging my peace of mind. Will I become disabled or lose my mind to the extent that my family will have to put me away? And if that happens, will my children interrupt their busy lives to come visit me? Will they be as busy as I was on many days when my mother wished in vain for me to visit her?

          To dwell on such questions is not healthy. Negative thinking makes us sick. I know that. But knowing it and keeping the mind free of such questions is not easy. Confession is also good for the soul, so perhaps it will help to express some of the dark feelings that lurk inside me, relentlessly seeking permanent residence in my soul.

          Visiting nursing homes has been a duty of ministry for over 50 years. Pastors must visit their people and some of them are in nursing homes. Like it or not, it must be done. I have programmed my mind to view such visits as a privilege;  it helps me to live “like Jesus.” After all, followers of Jesus must practice deeds of love and mercy, and one way to do that is offer encouragement and cheer to some lonely soul in a nursing home.

          I know the drill. Sign in and ask for room numbers. They move people a lot in these homes. Then walk down a long hall dodging old folks in wheelchairs and the many nurse’s aides who are busy working. Some are strapped in the chairs; otherwise they would slide out and hurt themselves.  One is talking to herself; another keeps saying “Help me; help me.”

          A few are mobile, using walkers or crutches to get about. Exercise helps. Staying in bed creates the inevitable, ugly bed sores. Some of the patients reach out to touch you, hoping you will pay them some attention. One always pleads, with a desperate voice, “Please take me home.”  

          You try to avoid the eyes, praying you will not remember the hollow, wrinkled faces but knowing you will. You speak politely but keep walking. You find the person you have come to visit. If it is Elizabeth, you realize she does not recognize you. Her mind is gone. She babbles on as you try to communicate. You leave a card, hoping a family member will know you visited Elizabeth.

          If the patient is Mabel, you remember that she is always cheerful. She smiles and thanks you for coming by. Her positive spirit is charming; she likes her room, the food, and the home itself. After a delightful visit, you leave with a smile and new buoyancy in your step. You went to help Mabel but she helped you more.

          On your way out, moving quickly down the hall, your sensitive nostrils detect only a faint odor of urine. You feel like applauding the custodial staff. You remember how strong the nauseating stench of urine is in so many nursing homes. You thank God you do not have to do this every day.

          No one wants to admit it but we all know it is true – some helpless old folks are discarded and forgotten. The nursing home is the last stop on the way to the cemetery. For some it is the only solution. None of us knows what lies ahead, but we can hope for a better solution for ourselves.

          I am glad Mama got to die in her own bed. I hope I can too, but I realize that may be a decision someone else will make for me. So I embrace the aging process, quietly hoping that Browning was right about growing old – the best is yet to be.  But if the last years turn out to be the best, it will not be because we got to spend them in a nursing home. + + + +