When our Dad died in September 2014 at the age of eighty-eight, my two sisters and I knew that it would not be long before our very organised and pragmatic mother, Doris, who had just turned ninety, would be making plans to move to a nursing home. Just eight weeks later, with the family’s help, she had moved to Kanandah Nursing Home in her home town of Mudgee.
Although mum had always been adamant that she did not want to live with family when she could no longer manage on her own, it was still very difficult for us to place her into care. And despite her brave front, I could not help remembering a conversation I had had with her some months before, when she had confided to me that she did not think that anyone really wanted to move to a nursing home, because it signified ‘the end of the road’. Was that what she was thinking now? I could not bring myself to ask.
The first day was the worst. Seeing mum sitting small but straight backed in her new room, waiting nervously for staff to come and take her to the dining room for her first meal in the new facility, made me want to tell her it was all a mistake that I was taking her home to live with me. What stopped me was the knowledge that the nursing home was mum’s choice, and by taking her home I would have been guilty of overriding her wishes.
Over the next few weeks, I was like an over -anxious parent whose child had just started school. I visited the nursing home every day, despite the fact that I live thirty kilometres away, and in between visits, I phoned. I must have driven the staff mad, but they always responded to my calls cheerfully and courteously. Unfortunately, my worst fears were realised when Doris suffered a stroke just a few weeks after the move, and for several days it appeared that she was not going to recover. Expecting her to be transferred to hospital, my sister and I braced ourselves for the task ahead, remembering with a shudder the long hours we had spent trying to help overworked and harried staff care for our father in hospital a couple of months before. We were greatly relieved therefore, when we found to our surprise that rather than have Doris transferred to hospital, the nursing home was willing to provide Doris with the twenty four hour care she needed. Throughout that stressful time, they were marvellous, and when mum made what seemed like a miraculous recovery just days before Christmas, we were encouraged by staff to celebrate Christmas Day at the nursing home. We had no idea what to expect, so when Christmas Day saw us all seated around a table in the Kanandah dining room, wearing party hats, eating turkey and plum pudding, while staff buzzed around cheerfully offering beer, wine or punch, our high spirits were due not to alcohol, but relief. It looked as though we were not just going to survive the nursing home experience, we might even be going to enjoy it.
And twelve months on, I can honestly say that there have been a lot more ups than downs. Each week has its highlights: a concert, special afternoon tea or fashion parade, along with regular activities that included exercises, craft, bingo, games, singing, church services, and gardening. Residents can choose to attend these activities, or stay in their room and read if that is what they prefer. Mum is able to spend time with her peers, connecting with people who have the same challenges and concerns that she has herself. Sometimes it is just a few minutes spent chatting before exercises start, or conversation at mealtimes, but these connections are important, as people encourage and support each other to meet the challenges that come with ageing, whether it be problems with mobility, diminishing faculties, or sadness at having to leave a beloved family home. It is always much easier to face challenges when we know that others are facing them as well.
I cannot help comparing the life she leads now with the life Doris would be living had she remained in her own home. On her own for the first time in ninety years, unable to walk even a short distance unaided, isolated from her peers, and increasingly dependent on others to meet her basic needs, mum’s life would have been an incredible struggle. At Kanandah, surrounded by friendly staff and peers, supported in the tasks that she is unable to perform for herself, and with a fully qualified nurse on the premises at all times, mum is able to relax, and the time she used to spend struggling to carry out daily tasks, she can now devote to the things she enjoys, such as reading, chatting, or listening to music. And my visits are spent taking her for walks downtown in the wheelchair, having coffee, visiting friends, or taking a leisurely stroll through the shops, instead of worrying about getting the shopping done, taking the garbage out, or possible trip hazards in the home.
Of course, there are times when things do not go smoothly. Sometimes, mum grumbles that lunch was awful, and nobody at her table could eat a mouthful. Fortunately, bad food days are rare at Kanandah, and residents are encouraged to make suggestions as to what they would like to see included on the menu. On a more sombre note, sometimes residents are confronted by the fact that one of their number has had a fall, been taken to hospital, or, sadly, passed away. These times are not easy, but they are shared times, and they get through it together.
I realised the other day, as I watched mum chatting in the foyer to one of the other residents, that I can finally take a step back. Doris has found her feet. And, more importantly, I know now that mum no longer looks on the nursing home as ‘the end of the road’. On the contrary, she has found it to be just another part of the journey, filled with both sorrow and joy; in fact, not much different from those that have gone before.