The Power of Touch 2: Beth. (Finding Community in Assisted Living)


The Power of Touch 2: Beth. (Finding Community in Assisted Living)

“Peggy did that when we watched tv with her,” Beth says, smiling at a memory and responding to an affectionate story I’ve just told about that aged gentle woman.  “She thought the baby animals on the screen, especially the kittens and puppies, were actually in the room, and she’d reach out and coo to them to come and be petted, just like she did when you were there.”

Watched tv with Peggy?  Wait a minute--.

Beth and her husband Brian are not Peggy’s daughter and son-in-law; they belonged to Beverly, a woman now passed on who lived a few doors down from Peggy in the same assisted living facility.  Both of these friends work demanding full-time regular 9-5 jobs, and I long marveled at their loving diligence with Beverly, how they daily made the time to drive over daily to see her on their respective ways home from work at 5:30 or together after a hasty dinner at home.

But, Peggy? Spending time also in front of the television with somebody else’s Mom?  Were they made of time?

“Well, Mom would go to sleep early,” Beth explains.  “And we knew that Nancy [Peggy’s granddaughter and closest relative] came in the middle of the day because of her kids and how far she had to drive.  We were there anyway, and Peggy liked the company.  After all, we were all like family, the other family members, their parents, and us. We looked out for each other.”

“I’d never put Mom in a ‘home,’” family caregivers say to me all the time as I go from house to house offering massages to people who are elderly, ill, and dying.  “It’s so impersonal.  She would get ignored there, lost there.”

Well, I try to tell them, it all depends on the “home.” While in some cases, granted, those fears can sadly come true, in others elderly people and those who love them actually find themselves welcomed into an expanded community of mutual support, even love.  In smaller facilities, in particular, like the 15-bed one where Beverly and Peggy lived, family caregivers who visit frequently get to know each other, conversing as they spend quiet companionable time with their loved ones in common areas and attend special events. That “getting to know” invites sharing ups and downs, commiserating and celebrating, and learning the details that made Beverly’s housemates feel like “family,” too.

It takes some effort, of course, to open to other people in the midst of one’s own overwhelming concerns and stress.  But what wonderful rewards can flow over time from the first simple introduction, the first questions asked, the sympathy that comes from common purpose.  It’s so easy to feel like the only person in the world going through what you are when you’re a caregiver.  Befriending others—and even cooperating the responsibilities of caregiving as Beth and her husband did—can lead to a vital sense of burdens lightened in the sharing.

“It was so hard to go up there at first,” Beth remarks, leaning across the table toward me at this meal we’re sharing.  “But now that Mom’s been gone for two months and we’re not there every day, I’ve realized how much I miss those people.”  She presses me for more details of Peggy, and of Joe, and of Gloria.  “I actually made a lunch date with Nancy for next week,” she says.  “We’re going to plan Peggy’s birthday party next month.”

Home is in so many ways the best place for people who need care, undeniably, and family caregivers who offer their lives in 24-7 service have a right to be extraordinarily proud.

But if you reach the point, as Beth eventually did, where your loved one needs more technical and intensive care than you can provide, it might cheer you to hear of this lesson she learned—so reluctantly on her part, after tear-filled weeks assuming she was failing her mother by “giving up” as she furnished the pretty little room in assisted living.

Sometimes it does take a village to care for vulnerable people—including you.  Sometimes, if you dare to care more broadly, to open to others in the same situation as you are, everybody in question will find their world expanding into a friendlier, more supportive place--at the very point you expected it to contract.

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