Thursday, November 4, 2010

Encore: The Day She Tried To Eat The Mirror

Let me describe a typical nursing home visit toward the end of my mother's life. It was the end of lunchtime. Mom was asleep in her wheelchair with a half finished plate of pureed stuff—green, brown, stuff—and clutched in her hand upside down was a small carton of the fortified chocolate shakes she likes so much. The contents of the shake was all over her bib and clothing and there were no attendants handy to clean her up. She smiled weakly when she saw me and, I think, recognized me, but her energy level was clearly low.

Anyway, I wheeled her over to her room where my wife was busy exchanging her summer clothes for her winter clothes and parked her against a wall so we could chat (or try to). She was sliding down in her wheelchair and I noticed that no one had bothered to attach the wheelchair footrests (again). I found the footrests in their usual spot under her bed (?), attached them and tried to lift all 140 pounds of her into a more comfortable position. I couldn’t do it myself, so my wife came over to assist and, together, we managed to improve Mom’s posture slightly.

All this time no staff person offered to help, so my wife cleaned Mom’s lunch off her clothing as best she could. Mom was sporting a stylish new haircut, so my wife took out her compact mirror and gave it to Mom so she could see how she looked. She seemed really interested and stared at the mirror for a long time. Great, we thought. She still cared about her appearance. But our pleasure soon evaporated as Mom lifted the compact to her mouth, licked it with her tongue, and tried to eat it. She must have thought it was a cookie.

Another possibility is that vision, hearing, smell and taste are so far gone with her that touch—tactile experience—is all she has left to gather information. Perhaps she wasn’t so much trying to eat the mirror as to identify it—but as I said in another article: who knows?

Suddenly she started holding her throat as though she was in great discomfort. It could have been a swallowing issue, reflux, heartburn, breathing problem...or none of the above. She could not articulate the answer but nodded affirmatively to a suggestion of water. She drank eagerly, and swallowed easily, until she aspirated the water and began to choke. Still no staff member was near enough to observe and to help.

Finally, we tackled an aide who was passing by and learned that Mom’s assigned aide went home early because she had spilled something on her clothes. Staffing levels being what they are, that meant that Mom would be unattended until the next shift. Because we were there and making demands, we got a promise that this aide would add Mom to her already huge caseload and keep an eye on her until shift change.

So the question is: if this was the situation when family members were visiting, what was it like when we weren’t there? If I thought she would get better care in another home, I would have moved her in a heartbeat—but there were no better alternatives available in our area. So what would have been gained by putting her through the trauma of moving? Not much in my judgment.

I know of no happy nursing home experiences. If you have one to report, please share your story on this blog. It would be a real morale boost for the rest of us.

(This is an encore article originally published June 2008--Sad to say, in the 2+ years since it was first published, we have not received a single report of a happy nursing home experience from our reders. Is this testimony to the really bad experience all of you are having with nursing home care for your loved ones? I truly hope not. )

Bob Tell
Dementia Diary, A Caregiver's Journal
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