I moved my father into his new dorm this week.
He recently turned 80, and is on a new adventure. It’s not exactly college. More like a new nursing home. But it felt as if I was bringing my first-born son to college freshman year.
My father fell on ice in his driveway almost two years ago, hit his head, and ended up in brain surgery. He survived a subdural hematoma, is now in a wheelchair, and has lived in three different rehab facilities/nursing homes.
He’s cognitively in good shape—which is pretty amazing considering the bleeding that went on in his brain—but he can no longer walk. His brain simply can’t tell his legs what to do. And now, after two years in a wheelchair, his legs are no longer strong enough to stand. So he requires 24-hour care to shower, dress, and transfer from his chair to his bed.
Most recently, he has been in assisted living, in a memory care unit because that was the only place in the facility where he could receive 24-hour care. It was odd, being surrounded by Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, while being cognitively intact. Many of the residents aimlessly wandered the halls, walking into each other’s rooms looking for something or someone, trying to get out the locked door, humming and singing to no one in particular. My father would just sit in his wheelchair watching them. The nurse once pulled out a game for the group to play during “Brain Games,” and my dad said, “We just played that game last Tuesday!”
No one else noticed.
Eventually, it became clear that we needed to find a new home for him—one where he would be allowed to use appropriate medical equipment such as lifts, and where he could have more regular social interaction.
So we found a new home for him, which seemingly will be a good fit in terms of location, finances, and services. So why did it feel like I was bringing my kid to college?
First, he was not able to bring his own furniture. They allowed us to bring a vinyl or leather recliner (that had to be approved) and that could be no larger than 36” x 32”. They barely make recliners that size. He had to live with their hospital bed and thin mattress, built-in shelves and dresser, and scant overhead lighting and small windows. They gave us list of things we could not bring, such as knives longer than 3 inches (darn!), a TV larger than a 19” flatscreen, and unapproved electronic devices. We had to leave his large teak dresser, wooden icebox, touch lamp, and antique bayonet and mounted pistol behind (seriously, he had these things). They gave us a list of what he needed to provide (his own toiletries, clothes, a few personal objects, and pictures that would cover no more than 10% of the wall). Sound familiar? They forgot to say that candles and hotpots were not allowed.
The nursing home staff did let us put his birdfeeder up outside his window. They said we had to put the extra birdseed in a sealed plastic container because they sometimes have ants or other critters. I suppose if this nursing home were in New York, they’d be cautioning us against roaches. This is New Hampshire, though, so they’re just watching for the country mice that will start coming in once the leaves fall off the trees.
The housekeeping staff helped unpack his room, but my sister and I rearranged everything. We hung a picture of our mother on the wall, placed plants in the windowsill, and arranged his decorations on his shelves: a pewter horse our mother gave him back in the 70s, an ivory Billiken, and a digital photo frame we gave him for his birthday.
The room he’s sharing with his roommate John seems sized for one. There’s a half-wall, with a curtain separating the other half, concrete block walls, and a shared bathroom. Sure, like college, there are common rooms where they can spend their days—places for them to watch the Patriots or Red Sox on widescreen TVs or play cards at square tables. There’s also a library where they can get Internet access and read the latest newspaper, and dining rooms where they will receive their meals on green, divided trays.
We deposited $100 in his account in the business office “bank,” which he can draw on when he goes to special events, the convenience store, or the barber. Since he spent close to nothing in his last facility, this $100 will probably last about a year (if he were in college and Domino’s Pizza were nearby, it would last three days).
When my father met his roommate, they shook hands shyly, introduced themselves to each other, and didn’t say much else. They were probably thinking, “I hope you don’t snore,” or “Who the hell are you”? Or maybe, “I wonder if you are going to try to bring a girl in here!”
As we tried to help him sort through his music and figure out what CDs he wanted to keep since his CD tower was a toppling hazard, I realized this is probably where he will live out the rest of his days. Unlike college, where he’d eventually come home, he’s here to stay. We don’t know if it will be a year, or five years, or even 15. But this is his new, and probably last, home.
Just as my sister and I were leaving, a young guy named Jimmy came in my dad’s room. He was not exactly the RA you’d find at college—but close. Jimmy was a very friendly nurse with a wide grin and a stethoscope around his neck, coming to take my dad’s vitals. I guess since they are taking him on they want to make sure everything’s still functioning.
“I love you,” I told my dad, and we gave him a hug.
“Now don’t skip any 8:00 am classes,” I said.
* * * * *
A few hours later, I wanted to call him. I want to know how his first dinner was—did they give him cranberry juice? Did he have enough time to eat? Did he meet any new friends? Had he talked to his roommate yet?
I couldn’t stop thinking of him lying awake in his bed in his strange room, in a strange building, in a new town, staring at his 90% blank walls. He would have pillows under his legs because of the contraction in his knees from sitting in the wheelchair. He’s now used to sleeping on his back. But did he remember to take his glasses off? He would probably be noticing the bright light coming under the door from the nurse’s station. He’d be listening to his roommate’s breathing, and probably thinking he’ll never get used to it.
But then I reminded myself, “He’s 80. He’s an adult. He’s just fine.”
Twenty-two years ago, my father dropped me off at the University of New Hampshire for my freshman year. My mother was attending a conference in another state, so he had brought me by himself. After he helped me unload the truck and unpack my room, we were standing around awkwardly, not knowing what else to do. It didn’t occur to either one of us to go out to lunch, which we would have done if my mother were there. I just remember hugging him at the side door of Congreve Hall. And as he turned to head down the brick stairs for home, he had tears in his eyes.