Opinion: Nursing homes take a toll on residents, their families
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Nursing homes suck. Not all of them, so no need to write a letter to the editor.
For the noble purpose they all serve some of them are quite horrible in practice.
I know, because I’ve frequented so many of them in this city over the past several years, from the Northwest and North sides to the West Side, and several in the suburbs, visiting my father, who has dementia.
And I know there are staffing shortages, the entire nursing home system is complex, there is never enough funding and the people who do the work are doing their best. Many deserve our gratitude.
But not all of them are “heroes” OK? Far from it. And it’s frustrating to see my father go through this.
As my dad enters the “nursing home” phase of his life, I think about what happens to a person as they age.
One day they are full of life, drinking beers in the yard, carrying on conversations until the moon shines bright, trading vodka shot for shot like they do in many Polish families, and the next … well … the next is when you can’t even recognize the man, let alone carry a conversation with him, or hell, ever have a steak or a drink with dad again.
Nursing homes are the best of times for some and the worst of times for others. These facilities present themselves as these heavenly communities, where everyone is smiling in the brochures, the residents look happy, the food is delectable, and the extracurricular activities make you forget you’re in one.
That nursing home utopia is usually reserved for people who are admitted to the first floor, the VIP suites. But the third floor usually looks like a “Thriller” video and smells like a CTA train.
Nursing homes are jails for the elderly. Only you’re wearing a diaper. And you probably don’t need a shiv.
“Yes, can you please call someone over to Room 3XX,” I said.
“Why? Because my father is covered in feces. Again.” Sometimes this happens so frequently I have to shout the 4-letter vulgarity loud enough so EVERYONE can hear it. This happens 95 percent of the time I’m there every week.
I have been visiting my dad at a home in a nearby northwestern suburb, a place he’s been at since a whirlwind of different facilities spanning all kinds of neighborhoods in Chicago.
My dad has been sick for a long time. He has had a quadruple bypass, stents, heart attacks, wound debridement for diabetic feet and etc. He never took care of himself. I get it. People have a choice. And my dad is no saint.
What piqued my interest in this topic is his transition throughout the healthcare system, from stays in several hospitals on the Northwest Side, the North Side, the West Side, by the Lakefront, to residencies at nursing homes in Austin, Uptown, Norridge, Niles, Norwood Park.. My dad has been shipped around. Like cargo.
Some were worse than others, and I’m looking at a certain “health center” in Uptown. Jesus, at some point they fed my dad so many psychiatric meds he started drawing on his face with lipstick and was walking around naked trying to escape down the stairs. His cell phone and clothes were stolen. He looked like actor Gary Busey, completely out of his mind.
Nursing homes usually just pay fines for reported violations. People can look this up on the state Department of Public Health Web site. Visit https://dph.illinois.gov/topics-services/health-care-regulation/nursing-homes.html. Look up quarterly reports of violations. It’s like opening the Pandora’s Box once you start looking up individual violations.
Some of the Northwest Side nursing homes fare better than the ones in the inner city, which comes as no surprise to me since those communities have faced disinvestment for years. But even richer suburbs have its share of violators. Some of them have reported cockroach infestations and abuse and some did not. Some have had no working air conditioners and etc.
Either way, no matter the violation, the worse the nursing home, the more the operators will pay the fines instead of fixing the problem. And that’s the problem. Profits are better running a crappy home than a nursing home for ya know, humans.
But my dad has taught me to tackle these situations with gallows humor. And I’ve come to appreciate visiting different facilities to see my own little version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Sometimes it’s “Bingo Friday” and they blare the numbers across four floors over the speakers loud enough so EVERYONE has to be involved. It’s probably a bad day when you have a hearing aid.
Sometimes the power goes out and you hear all the old folks yelp in unison in the dark like teenagers at a carnival when the floor drops down from underneath their feet.
Sometimes the paramedics are wheeling you out, and sometimes they are wheeling you back in. Sometimes the elevators work, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the rooms look fine, and sometimes it looks like a bed where they filmed “The Exorcist.” Sometimes the food is good, and sometimes, like my father said, “a dog wouldn’t even eat it.”
You hear the sadness coming from the corridors, down the hallways, past the unused exercise machines parked on dirty carpets. The soulless feeling of loneliness that permeates these places is truly heartbreaking. I’ll give you the best hits.
“Help me! Can anyone help me?”
“I need water, please. PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I NEED WATER.”
“Can I get my vanilla Boost shake now?”
I took a peek into one of the rooms one day and some guy was naked yelling “Where is my birthday cake?”
“You!” he pointed at me. “Get me my birthday cake!”
Then there are patients who scream 24-7, unprintable things in a family newspaper. A lot of it rhymes with “ducks,” and cursing out the staff, and “Henry, behave yourself!!! Henry be quiet.”
“What’s he yelling about?” I asked.
“Who knows? He’s dying and he doesn’t like it here,” a man said.
I feel sorry for aging folks and what we put them through. These are human beings, with debilitating conditions, and we treat them like yesterday’s news. Like trash. Or old Tweets.
Old ladies rolling around on noisy wheelchairs, people positioned to look out dirty windows, old men trying to solve complicated puzzles with even more puzzled stares, ladies with no socks walking around the hallways trying to drink other people’s beverages, people complaining about rampant theft, some old guy in a diaper shouting “Today, today!” Maybe they are cleaning him. I’d be happy about that too.
I can understand people who need to be there, like my dad, who needs care. But what is sad, are the folks who are still cognizant, just sitting, watching TV, maybe still walking around, and just looking for a spark, anything, to make them feel like they are still somewhat of an asset to humanity.
Another man, Alfred (not real name) is my dad’s roommate. Very with it. Still there. I keep asking if they are getting along. He says “as much as possible.” But this man sits there for hours because he can’t walk, waiting for lunch, waiting for supper, just sitting staring at a wall, or a program devoid of substance.
“There is nothing on here. They don’t even have WTTW Channel 11,” Alfred said. “So I can’t watch a concert.”
This guy is technically in worse shape than my father. He knows exactly where he is and what is happening to him. My dad doesn’t.
I keep telling them they need to open the windows or turn the A/C on.
“Maintenance man needs to do this, I don’t want to break the rules and get in trouble,” he said.
“Screw the maintenance man, what, are you going to listen to all the rules? I’ll open the window is that OK?” I said.
“Leave it open. Just put the blinds down.” Alfred seemed pleased.
Dealing with old folks humbles you. Sure, at the beginning the only emotion is anger. You lash out at your loved ones and the staff. As if it’s their fault for getting sick.
“What the hell? Why did you throw (expletive) at the wall, Peter?”
“They didn’t change me for a few days,” my dad said.
“What do you mean a few days?”
“A few days.” This is a very common phenomenon.
And you see the sadness. And you try to help. Help the nurses and the staff, even though you’re angry they are not doing their jobs. I understand many of these places are short-staffed. The pay is bad and there is no real need or reason to care for anyone but a paycheck. But I curse the ones who don’t care. Why are you in healthcare?
So I do it myself. I got tired of asking. I almost volunteer. I cut my dad’s hair. Or change his socks, or cut his fingernails, or change his diapers, or bring him Wendy’s because he likes the honey mustard, or bring him a pen and a paper so he can draw ladies with big breasts, or newspapers that I know he can’t read, or clean his glasses, or feed him food, or make him brush his teeth.
I do all this because if I don’t advocate for his wellbeing there will be none.
What some health care workers (not all of them) don’t understand is that while my father may still be there in a mortal coil, he won’t be there again for a barbecue this Sunday, drinking beer on a nice summer day, cracking jokes, and laughing.
He won’t be there just being dad, doing goofy stuff, egging me on, going to the movies, sneaking little bottles of booze inside, and then discussing the film half-hammered in the parking lot.
Instead he is mostly bedridden, not really sure which God forsaken place he is at now. And in processing all of this I came to one conclusion. I too would be throwing excrement at the walls. After all, treat anyone long enough like a beast and they are going to act like one.
Because nursing homes suck.