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I'll be seeing you...

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

Doc, I felt awful. My dad was at the facility for over a year, and I visited every single day-I never missed, no matter how bad the weather was, or how busy things were at home. I usually went in the afternoon, after the Bingo game. He'd be sitting at the 'guys' table' in the corner, playing pinochle, cracking jokes… I usually brought treats, or magazines, or something.

Everybody was always glad to see me. They'd tell me I looked nice, and ask about the kids-I really felt like we were all family. When Dad had the heart attack and they rushed him to the ER, one of the worst things I had to do was go back and tell them that he was gone. We all cried together… I promised I'd be back soon.

Anyway, it took a little longer than I'd thought it would, with the funeral and getting all his affairs in order. I guess it was over a month until I got back to visit. I brought the tribute album I'd made, and a video of the eulogy my brother had given. I had it on my tablet to show them-I thought they'd be dying to see it.

Well, it didn't turn out the way I'd thought it would. There was a new receptionist-she didn't know who I was. She made me sign in and say who I was there to see. I put Dad's old roommate's name down, and she told me that he wasn't in that room anymore. She acted like I was trying to break in or something. One of the nurses was going by, and she told her I was OK, which made me feel better, but still.

When I went into the rec room, I half expected to see Dad sitting in his usual spot at the corner table. Only, there was no corner table anymore-they'd gotten rid of it. Some of his old friends were hanging out as usual, and they were happy to see me, but it wasn't the same. One lady who'd been sweet on Dad couldn't remember my name. Another one just went on and on about her aches and pains. When I tried to show them the album, they weren't interested. I never did show them the video. I just went home.

When we first began working in nursing homes, we were horrified by several phenomena that occur almost universally whenever a resident dies. The first was the tendency of some surviving residents to 'scavenge' for stuff. Almost before the deceased had exited the building, former friends would be hanging around their doorway. When grieving family arrived, the residents' first comments were not always expressions of sympathy, but questions about what they planned to do with the deceased's clothes, jewelry, or knickknacks. Initially, we figured that this behavior was based on the desire to have some memento by which to remember the deceased.

This led to our very slow grasp of the second near-universal response to death in a facility: The dead are almost never mentioned. Once in a great while, staff will nostalgically remember some quirk of a former resident when talking amongst themselves, but the discussion is soon lost in the need to address other, more immediate concerns. The residents will almost never speak of a late peer, even if they were good friends (and even if they're currently wearing the deceased's favorite sweater).

This 'shutting down' reaction makes sense when viewed as a psychological defense against thoughts of one's own death, which lurk not all that far beneath the surface for many nursing home residents. However, there is sometimes collateral damage in terms of relationships with those visitors mentioned earlier. Many people visit their loved ones daily; when a resident lives at a facility for years, these visitors become a part of the facility community. The resident's death technically ends that formal connection. The bereaved usually promise to 'be back soon' and to visit often, but many are never seen again. Residents sniff that they 'must have better things to do now,' and nurture their hurt feelings. Those visitors who do re-appear are usually greeted warmly enough the first time, but tend to be met with dwindling enthusiasm if they return again-especially if they are so insensitive as to refer to their late loved ones.

For the visitor who'd felt loved and welcomed by their loved one's peers, this rejection can be hurtful and puzzling-insult to injury, and yet another loss. "I thought they liked me," one can't help but think. Fact is, they probably did, but they've moved on. They're getting friendly with the new occupant and his or her family, seizing the moment. The last thing they want to do is reminisce about that which was, but can no longer be; the visitor seeking that solace will be shut down quickly.

Everybody mourns in their own way, and there may not be a 'right' way to do it. Efforts to force 'appropriate' expressions of grief or remembrance will likely fall flat. There's no harm in gently reminding your loved one's former friends and neighbors about the 'good stuff,' but be prepared for some defensive distancing. That said, know that they did care, and still do.

 

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, which is available at amazon.com, or may be purchased directly from HarperCollins Publishers.

Our latest book is entitled How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement, published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.