That first day of my fresh-from-school career as a young nurse is captured in the sweet memory of a crisp autumn morning punctuated with dazzling sunshine and the scent of glorious bursts of orange and red leaves. I remember inhaling that heady fall fragrance before I opened the door to the Happy Hills Retirement Home to begin a promising new job.
The next breath I took nearly sent me running back to the want ads. Later, I found out Mr. Provilotte, a long time dementia sufferer, sometimes would turn the wrong way in the mornings and relieve himself in the plastic potted palm.
His was not the only unintentional incontinence offering to cloud the atmosphere with a cloying odor that never seemed to wash away.
After a brief orientation with Mrs. Barley, the director, we sat sipping coffee in a corner of the residential dining area where, in an effort to launch me into the reality of nursing home care, she shared advice borne of experience.
“See the sweet looking lady wearing the big hat?” she pointed, indicating the table by the window where a woman seemed intent on cutting her toast in two inch squares to use for a fence around her scrambled eggs. “That’s Mrs. Stilfried. She will not come to meals without something on her head.”
Mrs. Barley leaned closer and whispered, “Once she wore her new pink panties atop that lovely white hair. “
When my new mentor chuckled I must have appeared aghast at her response regarding a senile patient.
“Oh, my dear,” she said as she patted my arm, “It’s okay to laugh. There are times when addressing the humor will keep you from crying. The main thing is to be respectful.”
I was too naïve to hide the unwarranted disapproval on my face.
“You will find,” she continued in her quiet, reassuring voice, “the only relief for the constant round of sadness, grief, and scary glimpses into dementia is to admit that some behavior is simply amusing.”
My southern grandmother used say, “Melody Jean, “she would drawl with great exaggeration for emphasis, “we all have folks in our families who have gone off to some part of their brains where we can’t go. Maybe they’re even happier, but for sure some of ‘em are funnier!”
Being a rather solemn child, I would nod, not really understanding.
She never failed to add, “That don’t mean you can make fun of your kin, or anybody else’s, but you can appreciate when right-side-up stuff gets wrong-side out and old geezers go to acting different from usual. It just may be knee-slappin’ hilarious…so if it’s me, I want you to know it’s fine to grin a little and just nudge me back on track if you can.”
That lesson stood me in good stead when Grammy did, as she predicted, “slide off the rails just a teensy bit.”
Mrs. Barley told me how someday I would be old and might be in a facility like this one. I listened with staid politeness. Like most young folks, my conception of aging seemed as alien as a spaceship landing in the front yard.
After a few years of geriatric nursing, I married, had children, was widowed, and moved on to other pursuits. One day I tripped over my running shoes and fell. Like the lady on television, I could not get up. The pain in my hip screamed volumes about that thing I thought would never happen to me –I really did get old. My kids live too far away to help during my convalescence, so guess where I ended up?
Happy Hills Retirement Home has undergone quite a few changes. For one thing, they have installed some kind of deodorizing system. Now nothing but pleasantness assails one’s nose when coming in the front door.
As I take a few steps with the walker I pass Colonel Bob’s room and wave. He looks snappy with his pajama top buttoned up to his neck, and a sharp crease in the matching bottoms.
“Hey” he bellows as I shuffle past his door, “you call that a salute, soldier?”
With fingertips to forehead, I try to give him the semblance of a correct military reply. He smiles. I move forward, giggling, as I remember when Mrs. Barley attempted to get me to lighten up a little.
As soon as I stop by my room I’ll amble on to the residential dining area.
First, I have to get my hat.
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones. [KJV]
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