K Knowing the AL Residents
My mother has been in assisted living since the beginning of last June, and in visiting her twice or more a week, it’s natural that we’ve gotten to know some of the other residents there as well.
It isn’t an easy acquaintance to make. A number of them are nonverbal, and if they do speak, it’s in a sort of murmur of disconnected sounds with perhaps an understandable word here and there. But several are also in earlier stages of dementia and are able to make some sort of conversation, even if it rambles, repeats, and goes ultimately nowhere.
But even those who are nonverbal have gestures and facial expressions that are their own, and we also know them by these.
There’s a form of attachment that grows when you see the same people constantly, and this makes it difficult when they suddenly disappear. It’s happened a number of times since June. We notice that we haven’t seen a certain person in a few days, a week. Sometimes a resident will have had to be admitted to the hospital, as happened with my mother’s roommate several months ago. But others don’t come back. It isn’t as though we knew them as friends, but we know their names; their faces are part of our memories. And we miss them.
We aren’t family members, so I feel a little uncomfortable asking the staff, What happened to Veronica, or Evelyn, or Nick? I don’t know whether, ethically, they’re supposed to reveal any information. I did ask once or twice and was told “she left” or “he needed more care than we could give him.” Code for: nursing home. A disturbing thought, especially when the person seems to be physically healthy. But assisted living is expensive and not covered by Medicare. And so when someone’s money runs out, they leave. It’s something I don’t like to think too much about. I admit to feeling complacent about the good home my mother’s in now, but will I have to change that when her money is gone? How do their families feel about the necessity, and how do they make that decision?
We sometimes have to remember that the people here were not always the way we see them now. These are people who have lived rich, full lives. Each of the residents has, outside his or her door, a framed plaque with a brief biography. These are both fascinating and sobering. You learn that one man who moves slowly and stiffly and doesn’t interact or speak much was once a pilot in the military. One woman was a schoolteacher, another a writer. My mother’s roommate, a little Indian woman, was acquainted with Mahatma Gandhi and was socially and politically active in India.
And yet where is all that now? Where does a life go when the memory of it is gone? It’s left to us, their children and grandchildren, to be the “memory keepers” for them, to remember their lives as they lived them. I provided the information for my mother's biography when she moved in; I hope that I can continue to be a good enough steward of the memory of her life.