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Suck it Up And Visit Your Aging Relatives

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"Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree,
And I feel like I'm clinging to a cloud, I can't understand,
I get misty, just holding your hand." - Misty, An American Standard written in 1954, music by Erroll Garner and lyrics by Johnny Burke.

One summer, I worked part time with a client in a nursing home. Two weekends a month, the staff would bring the residents to the activity room and a couple in their 60s and their dog would visit and sing old standards accompanied by guitar. I couldn't believe how the energy in the room changed. Although most were severely limited in their ability to communicate, the residents' eyes lit up and I heard sounds where there had been silence before. A recognition of music, words and a dog's bark.

It was a joy to behold. An unexpected fringe benefit of a short-term paying gig.

But I, like most people, have always dreaded the day when such issues would directly relate to me. For example, I couldn't imagine my aging parent not recognizing me!

"Blanche?" my mother called out to me. It didn't hurt as much as I thought it would. My aunt's voice is lower than mine, I chuckled to myself. It is early dementia, but so far, 99 per cent of the time she still thinks I'm me.

My mother has lived with my partner and me since 9/11, and I want to keep her home with us as long as possible. A lovely nurse named Happiness -- I kid you not -- comes in three times a week. And I feel lucky my sister stays with my mother when I'm out of town.

In fact, Maurice and I just flew to Sault St. Marie, leaving one ill mother to visit another -- Cecile, his recently widowed (after 67 years of marriage) mother in her nursing home.

As we sat waiting at the fourth floor entrance for Cecile to finish her lunch, a woman wheeled herself up to us.

"Are you here to visit me?"

Lumps in throats, we just looked at each other knowingly. Fortunately moments later, we heard a man's voice that perked up our ears.

"Come sit on my lap, Amie."

"This is an interesting nursing home, Maurice."

"Do you know each other?" I asked.

"Oh, we've been married for almost 70 years," laughed the wife, plopping herself down in position.

"Shucks," I whispered to Maurice. "I was hoping for something a little more scandalous."

Thoughts of our mothers, these friendly strangers, their pasts, present and future, whirl through my head as I walk the halls each visit saying hello to everyone that crosses my path.

"How long you been here?" I asked Cecile's friendly male nurse.

"Twenty-seven years. Three years until I retire. I'm ready."

"I can imagine. No, really. I can!"

It takes fortitude to maintain a positive spirit after that many years. I wondered, how many residents has this man had to say goodbye to?

My mother-in-law's nursing home holds a tribute every few months to people who have "left home." Maurice's dad was, of course, part of the last event. Out of, say, 14 tributes, only three had family or friends outside the home in attendance for the remembrance.

I'm saddened but not surprised.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard people say of their loved ones or acquaintances in nursing homes, "I want to remember her the way she was." I understand the sentiment but it's a cop out.

I certainly have needed an attitude adjustment myself. My family's circumstances certainly provided that much-needed reality check: Is this not the place where most of us are headed?

In one of my visits to Cecile, I noticed what I thought was an interesting hat on a chair in the lunch room. Went to pick it up for a closer look and "it" meowed at me. Misty, they tell me, is the resident cat and has been for over 10 years.

It's true, you probably will shed a tear or five at a nursing home, but buck up and visit, you might catch yourself smiling too.