The Other Side of a Nursing Home

It’s one thing to visit a patient inside a nursing home. It’s another to occupy a bed yourself and have others pay you a call.

I am no stranger to nursing homes. As a newspaper reporter, I often made it a practice to frequent these centers, search out the centenarians for a photo opportunity, and write stories of general interest on our elderly.

For four years, I visited my mother most every day and really got an intimate look at the staff and residents. In a sense, they became like an extended family to me. My mother wound up outliving seven of her roommates before passing on at the ripe age of 98.

Being somewhat skeptical of these places, I always assumed it was the final stop on one’s destination to life.

That is, until I became a resident myself for 11 days following a stint with heart surgery and a brief recovery inside the ICU. I could have gone home and drove my wife berserk with all the therapy and medical requirements, or check myself into the rehab section of a nursing home and spared both of us the added grief.

The one I chose offered me a private room with a telephone and a flat screen TV, just outside the nurses’ station in case I needed a quick fix. Just ring the bell and they’d arrive post haste.

Far for me to think I would be a candidate for such a lifestyle at age 70 and thrust into a society of geriatrics where people much older were much more incapacitated than I.

You’re looking at a guy who climbed the tallest peaks in each New England state and fancied himself with a competitive game of racquetball against players much younger. A 90-minute workout on a treadmill was my usual routine. Okay, so I snacked a bit excessively, but on the whole maintained a pretty healthy diet.

My associates were incredulous. “Never thought you’d be the one to end up with a triple by-pass,” they said.

Well, why not? A guy who never smokes can get lung cancer. You can break your neck slipping on a banana peel. We’re all at the mercy of God’s ways, like marionettes in his playbook.

A nurse welcomed me in the parking lot with a wheelchair and there was no waving her off.

Over the next hour, people came and went with orientation and the general rules of the house. A list of meds was prescribed and a daily menu was perused with options. Over the next 10 days, I was the one sauntering the corridors en route to therapy and poking my head into a room or two for greetings.

I got to be pretty chummy with some of my cohorts. We’d exchange war stories and counted the discharge days. Having bed checks at 11 p.m. went with the territory. Not that I would go AWOL, but for blood pressure monitoring, heart rate, pulse, another pill to digest. My door quickly became a turnstile.

The nurses and orderlies became like family to me. One guy was into construction when he decided to better his life and took up nursing. He wanted to help others and by entering such a profession, was helping himself.

I sensed a passion here more than a job. Maybe it was different in other places with burnout, but here in rehab I saw a sense of commitment. The therapists were on me from all directions. I helped usher in someone’s wedding and mourned the loss of another’s pet.

There is no modesty inside a nursing home. I learned that the first day when they slipped me into a johnny. I stood there in a shower while a CNA gave me a sponge bath, thinking nothing less of it. On another occasion, someone cleaned me up after a bowel movement.

I remember such an incident in Mitch Albom’s book Tuesdays with Morrie in which a Brandeis professor suffering from ALS suddenly lost all mobility and dreaded the thought of being wiped on a toilet seat.

Being institutionalized for 11 days forced me into relaxing. No meetings to attend. No computers or appointments to keep. No stories to write. Just follow their routine, not yours. If a bill didn’t get paid, not to worry. The cooling system malfunctioned in our home, and someone else took care of it.

I’m back home now on the road to recovery, taking my own showers and workouts, and allowing time to heel my wounds. It’s great to be alive!

Through all of this, I’ve learned one vital lesson that bears repeating: The picture of good health requires a happy frame of mind.

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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  1. Given Armenia’s geo-political situation, it is very difficult to create industrial jobs there, hence the demographic haemorrhage (exodus). The idea of moving our ‘subsidized by Armenian charities” nursing homes from the diaspora to Armenia has been expressed in the past (see Aram Ayvazyan p.124 of  or P.16 of ). This would help create or sustain some jobs in Armenia, and help further improve the health-care and other systems there. It is a win/win situation for the Diaspora and Armenia: Just think: Our elderly would live on their ‘hayreni hogh’, they will be getting excellent healthcare, they will be able to have a rich cultural life by going to all these cultural shows in Armenia and in Armenian; and with the money saved, they will be able to pay a first class air-ticket for their grand children to visit once a year.
    How about an article on this issue Mr. Vartabedian! 

  2. Tom, whenever you write, it is as if you are part of the family. This article, in particular, got even more personal and funny and educational at the same time. Many times you bring in your Mom and I’m glad you do. She was a remarkable lady.
    Loved your last sentence and guess what —you have it.

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