I was inexplicably reminded of how much my young sons reviled the sights, sounds and smells of my grandmother’s nursing home—especially the smells: a mix of dried urine, diarrhea, medicine, floor cleaner, cafeteria food, and decaying flowers. For a woman who hid lavender-scented bath soaps in her dresser drawers to fragrance her unmentionables, I assumed it was a miserable existence for her. So, when the weather was temperate, I whisked her outside to breathe the fresh air, feel the sun on her face, and listen to the birds. But these trips seemed somehow painful for her and, for whatever reason, she only wanted to go back inside.
I often brought my 10-lb Shih Tzu to the nursing home with us and, each time, my sons and I had to run the gauntlet of people lining the hallways. Even patients who were normally unresponsive would light up at the sight of a little dog. My grandma liked the dog, but was much more interested in talking to me. The conversations were painful at the end. She repeated every question at least a dozen times in the hours we spent together, and my sons and I patiently answered them, over and over again, hardly missing a beat.
Long after she’d forgotten the names of both of her great-grandsons, my grandma still remembered me. She always seemed to be searching for familiar faces in the crowd. She recognized me immediately, even when I arrived unannounced and, each time I met her, I embraced her and kissed her lips. This is a ritual common in our family—no air kisses or stiff hugs for us. On the rare occasion a family member or close friend turns their face away when I try to kiss them, I cannot help but feel offended. It is simply not our way.
This is my message to the young ones. Touch the old ones in your life. Let them feel your hands in theirs. Kiss them without retching like you’re embracing a homeless person. Answer their questions without irritation. Do not try to correct their grammatical mistakes, explain what century they’re living in, inform them about who has died, or get them up to speed on current events. They don’t care. They are institutionalized. Have compassion, for this may be you one day. If you’re lucky.
I still feel physical pain at the thought of my grandmother. I remember how her skin felt soft and thin against my own, and how her fingernails were perfectly manicured and polished, even in the nursing home. Granted, her toenails were jagged and thick, the skin on her face and around her hair was dry and peeling, her clothing was wash-and-wear and covered in dandruff, and her shoes, though brand-new, were left untied, the toes cut open, to relieve her swollen ankles and feet. But those are not the things I choose to remember about her life.
Many elderly folks chew with their mouths open and drool when they sleep. So what? They don’t care—why should you? I understand there exists a certain amount of fear and angst around aging in the American culture today. I can empathize. But how would you feel if people were offended by you? If they backed away when they saw you? If they averted your gaze? I saw my own children treat my grandmother in such a way more than once and, though I completely understood why, I was still ashamed.