When she first went into the nursing home, just before New Year's Day 2005, Momma still had her feisty side. On our frequent visits we would sit with her, asking her questions and helping her answer, when she would suddenly take notice of another resident. The change in her expression was dramatic: her lips would purse and her eyes flash raw anger, at someone whose name she could not remember and whose offense she could not explain.
The orderlies would struggle with her to take her medicine. “No!” she would announce, “no” being the word that she always had the least trouble with.
Then she had another stroke. Off to the emergency room, one night there, one night in intermediate care, one night in regular care, then back to the nursing home. One carotid artery was completely blocked but the other let through enough blood to keep her going. When she returned she was quiet and calm, at first.
She slowly regained her strength and her fight. She didn’t realize she had a left side but rehab gave it back to her. She didn’t like the wheelchair. She had to get up to walk, because she had places to go.
She didn’t know where she had to go, or why, but she did know that the staff and that damn ankle alarm were keeping her from getting there. Each time she made it out the door, just when she thought she was free at last, someone would catch up to her and take her back inside. She would try again. And again. And again. And again. At last the nursing home agreed that she could go, in fact had to go — to another nursing home.
We made the mistake of taking her to the new home ourselves. I drove while Terri rode in the back seat with Momma. It was a 45 minute drive, on freeways and through heavy traffic, and Momma panicked at the light and noise and commotion. She wanted out of the car even as we were doing 65 m.p.h. She would grab at the door handle, at the lock, at anything, unsure of how to operate any of it but very sure she had to get out. Terri would grab her hands and ask her to try to sit quietly. Momma would get that perturbed look on her face, clasp her hands in her lap and stare straight ahead for a few moments before again succumbing to the urge — no, the desperate need — to get out of the damn car.
The staff at the new nursing home helped us settle her into her new room. She was in Unit B, the lockdown area for ‘exit seekers,’ dementia patients at that stage in their illness where they feel compelled to get out.
A few months later, a bout of pneumonia and another trip to the hospital failed to slow her down. Then one day they found her lying on the floor on the shower room, screaming in pain. She had gotten out of her wheelchair, unnoticed, walked to an unlocked door, then slipped and fell, breaking her hip. Back to the hospital, this time for surgery, but there would be no therapy when she returned to the home.
Momma is not in Unit B any longer. She does not walk and does not try to. She does not seek exits, or entrances either. She doesn’t purse her lips any more, her eyes no longer flash anger. All her facial expressions are gone, replaced by a blank, uncomprehending stare. She opens her mouth obediently when they feed her. Sometimes she will say “yes” when I ask her a question, but mostly she just looks at me. She takes her medicine without complaint.
Momma died in 2007.