Thursday, August 9, 2007

My Retirement Oasis

We moved John into a nursing home in Santa Monica last week. Getting him there wasn't easy, since Trudy won't speak to Karla, and when I tried to talk to her about choosing a place she claimed she was having, "a spell," and had to lie down. Also, on the day of John's transfer, Trudy kept hanging up on the hospital's social worker who was trying to organize the move.

We had all been afraid to broach the topic with John. He is already depressed and confused, and Trudy is afraid he is going to think we are abandoning him. ("I just feel so sorry for him.") I was anxious about it too until a couple of weeks ago. One day after we finished watching, "A Fist Full of Dollars," on DVD, I casually mentioned to John that since he may be in the hospital, "for a while longer," we were thinking of moving him some place with better cable. That sat pretty well with him. I told him that it's just temporary, until he can walk again, but that isn't true. He will probably never come home.

The nursing facility is fairly nice. The rooms are cheerful and bright, the staff is friendly, and the food is homemade. All in all, it's not too depressing, discounting the decrepit octogenarians wandering the halls like zombies with walkers. It's kind of, "Sunny Afternoon of the Living Dead."

In any event, it's a far cry better than the, "Retirement Oasis," I visited a few weeks ago near the hospital in Boyle Heights. That place had been recommended by John's internist at the hospital, so I made an appointment to check it out one day before work. I had been warned by a friend who put her dad in a convalescent hospital that some of them can be pretty grim. "It's the smell," she said. "If the place stinks like piss and sour milk, move on." Trudy couldn't make the appointment, but she wanted me to make sure the home wasn't, "just full of old people." I told her that without setting foot inside I would bet good money the place is riddled with the elderly. What else did she expect? Evidently, she was hoping there would be some, "crippled children," there to make it less dreary.

The night before my visit I logged on to their website, which brags that the home was established over 100 years ago and was the first licensed retirement home in California. There are three stages of care there: Independent Living, Assisted Living, and, "Nestled among lush foliage and blooming flowers," is the Skilled Nursing Care wing, where John would reside. More importantly, the online map says there is a "cat sanctuary." And more intriguing still, their most famous resident is Frances Kuyper, better known as The Cake Lady. In fact, the retirement home also houses Mrs. Kuyper's Mini Cake Museum. Tours are conducted by appointment. Admission is free.

After passing through a security gate, I parked in a circular driveway next to a small fountain and walked into the main building. The interior is homey, but kind of claustrophobic and dark. It didn't smell badly, but I felt like I had stepped into 1945, which is probably the last time the place was updated. The Director of Admissions and the Director of Nursing Services, both women in their 60's, gave me a tour. They told me that several former employees have chosen to retire there, and I believe them. They showed me the empty physical therapy room and then the dining hall, where a group of elderly people sat in their wheelchairs, silently waiting for breakfast. Except for one woman in a yellow nightie who sang a song I didn't recognize to her captive audience while an attendant stroked her hair.

I asked to see the residential area so they showed me a couple of rooms that were unoccupied. They were tiny and barely managed to fit a single bed, a dresser and a television. As we were walking down the hall I noticed a woman lying in bed in an elaborately decorated room. She smiled at me and waved, so I veered from my tour and walked up to her door. As I approached, the woman extended her hand to me. "Well, don't just stand out there in the hallway. Please! Come in!" Her name was Elaine and she looked tiny in her frilly bed jacket, propped up with pillows beneath a thick floral bedspread. Her children had covered the walls of her room with family portraits and framed bible verses. There were doilies on the dresser and the nightstand. Across from the bed were two television sets, both on. I then noticed she had a set of ear buds hanging around her neck. I asked her what she was watching and she told me that she likes Christian programming. She watches and records two ministers at a time, so she can enjoy them later with her husband, who lives nearby in Independent Living. This way, she doesn't miss anything. Beaming, she exclaimed, "I am blessed with Direct TV."

The Director of Admissions started to get restless, and maybe a little nervous, so she concluded the tour and escorted me out of the building. I didn't get to visit the cat sanctuary or meet Frances Kuyper, but I did see an old man playing shuffleboard next to a cement koi pond, while construction of a new wing went on noisily behind him. I drove away thinking that while I could spend hours visiting with Elaine and baking with The Cake Lady, John could not. Not even with an advancing case of Alzheimer's to dull the experience. Not even with better cable.

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