Neighbors: Nursing-Home Life and the Quality of Days

Dec 04, 2007

She leans toward me and almost whispers: “Loneliness is real, honey. It catches hold to so many good people in a place like this, I can’t tell you. Takes the heart right out of them. But what’s left after that, it can go on breathing for years.”

“The Golden Years.” We hear this expression often in connection with the most senior stage of human life. It naturally evokes images of freedom from the lifelong grind, and ample emotional and material reward for a job well done. But all too often the period is characterized by the kind of physical decline and financial instability that together make for a very harsh, burdensome final act.

Having no friend or relative to turn to for so much as an encouraging word or a game of Scrabble can compound the dilemma greatly, and such is the lot of many. But I just met a woman who is determined, on the strength of her faith and her indomitably cheerful character, to beat the odds—and to help others in so doing.

“My daughter sends me things,” says this engaging woman of 79, who lives in a skilled-nursing facility here in the Bootheel. Having recently been brought home by her church van, she still wears her Sunday go-to-meeting best. The beige angora pullover she now sports is one of the many gifts sent along by a daughter living in a northeastern state, a homemaker and mother of three. “All my people are from back east,” says my new acquaintance. “Most everybody living is still there.”

This woman’s late husband was a Missouri-born truck driver whom she met in her home state back in the early ’50s. They were quite active in their Bluff area church until his death three years ago.

The last time she saw her only child and grandchildren was this past spring, during the visit which has become an annual, and greatly anticipated, event. “But at least I have my church, my books and letters—and my Dancing with the Stars,” she adds with a grin. “But some other folks…Sick or weak, trying to fill day after day all alone away from home…I don’t think there’s anything harder on a body.”

Eventually the dinner hour arrives, and residents begin emerging from their rooms, many with help from the young nurse’s aides on duty. “For my part, everybody here gets at least a smile from me,” says my hostess, as we begin the brief walk to the dining room. “A smile, or a handshake, or whatever kind words come natural. They’ll get it as long as I have strength.

“I don’t have much to give anybody. But I figure that’s something.”