Friday, February 13, 2004

Do not mistake the collection of stuffed animals by an old lady in a nursing home as a symptom of dementia or childishness. It is a response to loneliness. It is not air that fills the rooms and hallways and stairwells of a nursing home, it is loneliness. There is enough of it in any given nursing home to fill up the galaxy.

My mom had a tiny, light gray, stuffed rabbit with moveable front and hind limbs, and pink linings to its ears, and beady little black eyes that did, somehow, look friendly. She had several other stuffed animals, of various sizes and colors and putative species, but the little rabbit was her favorite. She arranged, and re-arranged them on her bed, so she could see them and touch them any time she wanted. The rabbit she sometimes held and murmured to. She was not senile.

I thought of this as I was going to sleep last night, and was abruptly reminded of an attempt I made thirty years ago to "do good." I went to the nursing home in the small Iowa town we were living in then, and volunteered to "adopt" one of their residents - visit, mostly.

The old lady they chose for me (I can't remember her name) was at least confused, if not suffering Alzheimer's. She thought I was her daughter. She called me by her daughter's name. I spent an hour with her the first meeting, and she never did realize it wasn't her daughter desperately trying to make smalltalk. I went back a second time, with a little bouquet of flowers, and her wrinkled face lit up. She clutched the flowers and said, "It's so good to see you, Eileen! How's that little girl of yours doing?" I'm not Eileen and I only have a son. It broke my heart. I wondered where the hell her *real* daughter was, and why wasn't *she* here, looking after her mother?

This second visit, the old lady fell silent after the first few minutes, and her eyes glazed over and she stared into space unresponsive to anything I said. After awhile, I patted her hand, said "Goodbye," and left, never to return. I was 22 years old and neither I nor most of the world knew much about senile dementia or how to treat its victims. I felt like a total failure; and I felt totally unrewarded. I had envisioned some grateful old person whose dreary and pain-wracked life would be brightened just knowing that such a caring young person was paying attention to them. And for years, I felt guilty for never going back.

Last night this train of thought left me sobbing in grief, for my mom who may have been lonely but whom I did certainly pay plenty of attention to, for that old lady in the tiny Iowa town, for all the people of the world who are lonely, hungry, homeless, terrified, and alone. For a few minutes it felt like all of it was all my fault - if I could just become a better person somehow I would find a way to make all of the pain go away. But after awhile, I came to my senses and reality, and knew again that one person cannot do it, can only hope to do an adequate job of loving and caring for the people in their immediate family, and that's if they're lucky and have tremendous stores of energy.

What baffles me is that so many people don't even make the effort. How can anyone put their mother or dad into a nursing home and then never visit, except maybe at holidays or birthdays? Maybe that's what those old ladies are asking their teddy bears and stuffed rabbits. I hope the cuddlies give them answers, even if I can't hear them.

No comments: