Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Out of Five Stars

I tend to visit more plush communities. Yesterday was my first time visiting a nursing home for the poor with dementia. I had been forewarned. "It's a horrible place." There was also the ominous rating in the elevator. 2 out of 5, in huge white bold type. And in case one did not quite get it,  below, an explanation in small print: 'This facility has received two stars out of a maximum of five.'  

Four floors of desolation, and a string of open doors revealing rows of beds, with people in various states of undress. A fat woman waves and says hello from her bed. In the hallways, more older folks, sitting in wheelchairs, waiting, silent. A man with a helmet stares at me. I read the menu posted on the wall and can only imagine what canned fruit at every meal must taste like. Many of the residents are Asian. I wonder when was the last time they had fried rice? I am shown into the activity room and see elders parked around a rectangular table with a well-meaning young aide to watch over them. Markers, crayons, and colored papers strewn across the table. According to my proud host, two people got featured in the city's "Art for Elders" show. Lucky the few ones who can still access their gift of creativity in such dismal surroundings! 

The institution has a color code for each resident. A red dot means "that person is really advanced in their dementia . . ." Yellow, not so bad. Green and blue, in between. I can feel my mood darken by the minute. The bleak lighting is of no help. I wonder how long do folks usually stay. "This is a long-term care facility. Usually years." I don't even bother asking the usual questions. How many caregivers per residents? How about medications? I already know the answers. I am done. I just want to leave. 

This is what awaits those who have no money, no family, and a mind that's slipping, and a body to go down with it. 

There's got to be a better way. I am filled with outrage, and the desire to do something. I also turn inwards to look at the depth of my attachments, and the fragility of my happiness, so conditioned by unpredictable outer circumstances. 


  1. That is rough - but a spot-on description of how so many of us end our days in an age when family connections are disrupted by mobility and financial need and a production-oriented value system combined with ageism makes it easier to discard these folks. Wanting to help but lacking a solution we tend to look away. I remember Thich Nhat Hanh's admonition to look directly at suffering and know we both create and receive.

  2. Not to get long-winded but perhaps your presence and spirit of compassion reaches out in small ripples to comfort some of those who are trapped in that place.

  3. Thank you JDB. Yes, not turning away, and letting one's heart be moved as a result.

  4. I have had to go into places such as this. There are just no good things to say about them. The people were put into wheelchairs and sat in the doorways of their rooms along the hallway. They silently watched as visitors, delivery people, and facility staff walked by. Hoping for a word of acknowledgement, a look of compassion or maybe more. Good Heavens it was depressing and I could not wait to get out of there!

    Finding the good in it? Maybe at least the severely demented have no idea how bad their surroundings really are...

  5. The good in it, for me, it's a lesson in Dharma, in impermanence, suffering, and gratitude. A call to right action.

    And unfortunately, even with very advanced dementia, people are very aware, maybe not with their mind, but definitely with their hearts.

    This is cruelty on a massive scale. Michael Moore should make a movie on this.

  6. An important post. Thank you for writing it.

  7. Thank you, Barry. We are each doing our work of witnessing what needs to be reported, and changed.

  8. I'm glad I've never seen a facility like that. Warehouse care. I would like to meet the people who work there every day. There are probably a few buddha's there. What country is this facility in?

  9. This facility is in California. And yes, there must be quite a few angels working there . . .