“Your mother has escaped from the facility,” said the nurse on the phone.
I was still in Sacramento. I had just thrown my suitcase into the trunk of my car, and I had wanted to call the nursing home to check on my mom and her progress in physical therapy, one last time before I left for San Diego.
“Escaped? What do you mean, escaped?”
“Nobody knows where she is, sir.”
“How is that possible?”
“It looks like she just got out of her wheelchair and walked straight out the front door, past the front desk, when the receptionist was away. We’ve called the police,” the nurse assured me.
“What did you tell them? To look for an eighty-year-old woman in a hospital gown, pushing an I.V. pole?”
“They’ll find her, Mr. Young.”
“She was supposed to go home tomorrow.”
“I guess she couldn’t wait that long.” The nurse laughed. When my silence conveyed that this wasn’t funny, she said, “Don’t worry, sir. Residents escape from here all the time. We almost always get them back.”
“She has aphasia. Do you know what that is? She can’t speak clearly, because of her stroke. She can’t tell anybody who she is or where she lives. What if she gets hit by a car?”
“We’re not liable, Mr. Young.”
“Your father signed our waiver form, which releases us from liability for bed sores, falls, and unauthorized self-release from our facility. It’s a condition of admittance.”
“This is unbelievable. I was just about to drive down to San Diego to help my dad bring her home and start caring for her.”
“You’re aware that she’s going to need twenty-four-hour supervision in your home, aren’t you? Otherwise she might start walking around, fall down, or even try to escape from your house in the middle of the night.”
“If your entire nursing staff can’t supervise her, how in the world are my father and me supposed to do it?”
She lowered her voice. “I took care of my own mother at home for ten years, sir. I thought I was going to go completely out of my mind.”
I drove toward San Diego with my heart dropping through my chest and stomach. I had never known this much stress in all my life, not knowing where my mother was or what was happening to her. Or what would happen once we found her and brought her home. A perpetual state of emergency was becoming the most powerful reality of my life. I didn’t yet understand that accepting a continuing sense of uncertainty would become my greatest source of strength.
When I called the nursing home from two hundred miles down the road, they had found my mom. She had never made it out of the parking lot. She was walking between the cars and the SUVs, too short to be seen, until a driver just avoided striking her.
When I reached San Diego it was dark, but I went directly to the nursing home. As I hurried into my mother’s room, she glanced up at me from bed and, with the lucidity that aphasiacs exhibit when they’re surprised, she said, “Oh, it’s my son. Let’s go home now.”
I bent over to kiss her on the temple. “Mom, how are you feeling?”
“Window face,” she said, “hotel hotel hotel—and oil.” For the rest of the visit, as I tried talking to her, she replied with her enthusiastic, broken aphasia.
Sharing the room was an elderly man with a group of Mexican women sitting around his bed. My mother is Mexican, but I don’t look Mexican, so they felt free to talk about my mom in Spanish:
“That poor old woman is crazy.”
“She said she has a boat waiting for her outside. She has Alzheimer’s.”
“She ran away today. They ought to lock her up in a closet. She’ll try to walk across the freeway.”
“It’s a shame. I’m glad we don’t have that in our family.”
“It’s hereditary. Her whole family will turn out that way someday, including all of her children and grandchildren.”
Rage blackened my mind so quickly that, for a moment, I was dizzy. Although I’d never heard the word aphasia before my mom’s stroke, I was now outraged for the rights of all the aphasic people of the world, for their right to express their needs, for their right to be understood, for their right not to be falsely labeled.
Yes, my mother’s ability to process and produce language had been compromised, but she knew exactly what she was trying to say, and she could understand most of what other people were saying. She was not a crazy person, nor did she have Alzheimer’s, nor was she “demented.”
I waited until the women had left and then I kissed my mother again and told her not to worry about anything people said. She nodded with relief. “In oil, in oil. It is their face, it is their windows.”
Her spirit—the same spirit that had led her to escape from a nursing home that she did not like—was intact.
The next morning, my father and I came to take her home. Together, we cared for her for four months, until my dad had a stroke and was paralyzed on the right side. Now I had two infirm seniors on my hands.
I cared for my mom for 45 months, until she passed away in May, 2012. I continue to care for my dad every day. I’ve been a caregiver in my parents’ home for 61 months now. I’m proud that my parents have been able to live in dignity and freedom in their own home, without being institutionalized. This is the most important, rewarding, and illuminating work that I have ever done.
Any person with a compassionate heart can learn to be a caregiver. This means that you can do it too.
– Robert Clark Young
© 2013, article and portrait (below), Robert Clark Young, All rights reserved
Photo credit ~ courtesy of morgueFile
ROBERT CLARK YOUNG ~ is a guest writer on Into the Bardo. He has worked as a caregiver in his parents’ home since 2008. “Escape from the Nursing Home” is excerpted from his book, THE SURVIVOR: How to Deal With Your Aging Parents, While Enriching Your Own Life. The book seeks a publisher. Robert’s other books are One of the Guys and Thank You for Keeping Me Sober. Visit his eldercare website HERE. His Amazon page is HERE.
Editorial Note (Jamie Dedes): In addition to being a caretaker, Robert is an accomplished novelist, writer, and editor. I first “met” Robert several years ago when he was the creative nonfiction editor for an online literary magazine. In submitting his bio to us, he was understated about his mission, which is an important one. He notes on Amazon:
“According to AARP, 61% of family care providers are women, with the typical caregiver being a 46-year-old female who is caring for one or both parents. Of the 39% of caregivers who are men, a majority are husbands of senior women, rather than sons. This gender imbalance in eldercare is one of the things we need to work to change.
“I’m unusual in being a male caregiver. One of the goals of this book is to help people understand that men can–and should–become nurturers.
“But my greatest wish is that this book will become a vital lifeline to everyone who, overnight, must face what first appears to be the devastating challenge of eldercare–a challenge that opens the way to unexpected growth and fulfillment for the caregiver. There is nothing to fear in eldercare. There is only joy, growth, and love.”