Like millions of other Americans, I’m packing up the car and heading east to visit my large extended family for Thanksgiving. While I’m excited to reconnect with the gang, I’m also a bit anxious: I’ve set aside an afternoon to look in on my Aunt Barbara, who just weeks ago moved into an assisted living facility after suffering a couple of mysterious blackouts and subsequent falls that left her with serious head wounds that have stubbornly refused to heal.
The rapid decline of this educated, vibrant, and oh-so-stylish woman has been a shock to her children and other relatives. I simply can’t imagine Aunt B in long-term care, the woman I always associate at the height of her beauty turning heads in Pucci-print mini dresses set off by lush dark hair and brandishing a Virginia Slims cigarette. She was the worldy Jackie O. of our family—and she still is; it’s just that now she’s confined to a wheelchair and must come to terms with the sudden loss of independence that she’s always fiercely maintained.
I think I’m anxious because first off, I don’t know what to expect when I see her; I’ve heard she’s resigned to her situation but is a bit depressed. How do I cheer her without coming off as patronizing? Second, now that I’m writing about this industry, I’ll enter the facility with a growing knowledge of the challenges and issues administrators and caregivers face on a daily basis. If I have a chance I hope to engage a staffer for a bit of one-on-one: “How about those pending Medicare cuts in rehab services?” Uh, right. I’m sure that’s the last thing a busy RN or administrator wants to talk about with a resident’s niece the day before a major holiday. However, I am really curious to see how my increasing awareness of the long-term care industry will color my experience.
So I guess I’ll be like many other family members that visit your nursing home, assisted living facility, or CCRC: a bit uneasy, wearing a good face, watchful for any signs of neglect or inattention, reflective and self-absorbed wondering if this might be my fate in a few years. And the difference? Well, I’ll have a professional curiosity about the facility’s operation and management and genuine respect and empathy for the professionals that dedicate their lives to caring for very special people, like my Aunt B.