P1080563Today’s post isn’t about France. It’s about angels. Down-to-earth, in-the-flesh angels.

The French novelist Proust famously had his madeleine, a cookie that, when dipped in tea, brought back memories for his protagonist. Taste and smell are such powerful triggers for memories. But music also can transport us to another place and time.P1080538The death of Glen Campbell last week, and the snippets of songs played along with the news and tributes, took me on a memory rollercoaster. Songs like “Wichita Lineman,” “Gentle on my Mind” and “Galveston” had me back in the house where I grew up, happily playing with my siblings and not having many cares beyond whether it really was my turn to do dishes.

But the songs also take me to the hospice where my father spent his last months.

P1080548
The photos in this post were taken at Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne, which dates to the 13th century.

It actually was just a nursing home, and the hospice part related to the kind of care my dad received. But it was a very special place. It was staffed by angels, who, however well paid, were not paid well enough, considering the bodily fluids and solids that they cleaned up, over and over, gently and efficiently. Angels who never lost their patience with the many disoriented residents in the throes of age-related dementia. Angels who, I fear, receive less than a warm welcome outside the nursing home, because they come from a veritable United Nations of farflung homelands. When the wider public sees see them, do they realize they are encountering angels—heroes? Do they realize these angels are making America great? Or do they just see dark skin and hear an accent?

The home was the opposite of an institution. It looked like the other white-siding-and-round-stone supersized “farmhouses” in the suburbs, with a big porch overlooking an impeccable lawn on a cul-de-sac. You’d need a keen eye and experience pushing wheelchairs to notice that the front door was extra wide, that the sidewalks and curb cuts were extra smooth and that there were no steps anywhere. P1080560After entering the code in the vestibule, one arrived in a “great room” that looked a lot like a set for a morning talk show. A large stone fireplace dominated the center, with a clutch of armchairs (some with electric lift assist) facing a big-screen TV on one side, and a few dining tables on the other side. And open to it all was a big kitchen, where somebody was always cooking.

Two of the cooks were Dixie and Donna, both with white hair and irrepressible smiles. They greeted everybody who arrived, often with hugs, and seemed to truly enjoy cooking. They were clever about finding ways to turn familiar flavors into forms the residents could chew or swallow (often involving heavy cream; people in a nursing home don’t count calories any more). They told me that it was important for people to enjoy their food, even if it looked like mush. I tasted some purée, and it was delicious.P1080553They also baked. The entire building smelled like cake and cookies 24/7. It was on purpose—to make it feel like home and not like “a home,” as in “a nursing home.” The baked goods were out for anybody—residents or visitors. A little sugar therapy.

While Dixie and Donna bustled in the kitchen, like a pair of comedic cooking show hostesses exchanging witty repartee, the greatest easy listening hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s played on a tape recorder on the counter. Yes, cassette tapes.P1080550Glen Campbell was a staple, along with Neil Diamond and Andy Williams. (I always had a crush on Andy Williams. That Christmas special!)

Dixie and Donna weren’t unusual there—the entire staff was caring. Loving, even. When my dad first moved in there, the “elder aide,” Sylvester, came into his room to welcome him. Sylvester was built like a professional football player, with a million-watt smile and boundless cheer. His infectious laugh would ring through the cottage. He took my dad’s hand and told him that in his native Cameroon elders are revered and that he was honored to have a career taking care of elders. He called my dad Mr. John and my mom Mrs. John—a charming mix of honorifics and family-style familiarity.  My dad loved Sylvester. P1080543My dad also loved Koko, a nurse at the rehab facility where he was discharged after the hospital and while waiting for a place to open at the nursing home cottages. Koko’s family was from Togo, though he had grown up in the U.S.

He treated my dad with as much tenderness as one would give a newborn baby. I have never seen anyone as gentle. He was a big, strong guy, too, and could single-handedly move my dad without causing him too much discomfort, whereas the young nurses, while adorable and cheerful, had a hard time shifting my 200+-pound father, even when there were two of them.P1080552Koko also was an extraordinarily conscientious worker, or at least the best-organized. I would sit with my dad for 5-6 hours at a time, even all night, when I was in town (lest anybody think that was special, please know that my siblings were there all the time, all year, for years, whereas I would just fly in for a couple of weeks; they were real heroes). I knew his orders were to be moved every three hours, because he had a very large bedsore. Sometimes it took a long time for anybody to come. But Koko always came in right on time, as if he had set a timer.

When it was time for my dad to move to hospice, he held Koko’s hand and thanked him, and asked him to consider transferring to the hospice with him.P1080559He loved Kelly, the hospice nurse. I think my dad was something of a treat for the staff. So many of the nursing home residents—and even the residents at the assisted living residents where he and my mom had been for about a year—were losing or had completely lost their mental faculties. But my dad was sharp as a tack. He loved to joke. He paid attention to the news. As my dad’s condition worsened, Kelly would do her paperwork in his room, to keep him company.

I can’t name all the heroes who treated my parents with love, care and dignity. There were so many, from the specialist doctors (some from countries on travel ban lists) to the housekeepers who spoke little English but who managed to coddle my parents despite the language gap.P1080567Glen Campbell is just one of many triggers lately that bring back those months. I’m a podcast junkie and keep stumbling on podcasts about the elderly, dying and related cheerful subjects. On the Fresh Air podcast, Terry Gross (world’s best interviewer) talked to the author of a book about palliative care. I am not so sure about palliative care. When my dad was in the hospital, the palliative doctor pushed hard for all treatment to end. My dad didn’t want treatment to end. He had great confidence in modern medicine, and figured something would give him some more time. When people talk about quality of life, I am leery. Who is to say which life has quality and which doesn’t? Most of us don’t want extreme measures to prolong life in the end stages of a terminal illness, especially if we’re suffering every minute. But if the person isn’t suffering? My dad was told he needed a feeding tube, and he was OK with that. The palliative doctor strenuously argued against it. It gave him a few more months, during which I think he came to grips with the situation. I also think he truly enjoyed every minute of every visit by family, and every conversation and joke with staff. Isn’t that quality of life?

There was an interesting podcast (on Reply All) about the design of nursing homes, including some like the one where my dad was in hospice. There also was a concept called a “Minka,” which is like a little cottage you’d put in your yard, so your aging parent could be nearby and cared for by family. I think it’s a great idea, but at some point, people need 24-hour care and things like medical cranes. It’s an awful lot to put on family (who might not be so young themselves) both physically and emotionally.P1080558On Point had a report about the fight over the right to sue nursing homes. It seems that one of the main roles of government is to protect the weak. But that seems to be flipped on its head daily. Not everybody is lucky enough to be in a facility like the one my dad was in.

When my parents needed to move out of their house and into assisted living, one of the main worries was “how are they/we going to pay for this.” Different facilities required different minimums—24 to 36 months—for paying privately, before applying for Medicaid. Medicaid is available only if you’ve exhausted your own money (as it should be). I wonder what will become of nursing home residents if Medicaid is cut. Will families face a choice of taking care of grandma or paying for their kid’s college education? In some ancient cultures, the elderly were banished to the wilderness when they became a burden and would have to wait alone to be attacked and killed by animals. Are we going forward or back?

The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Hubert HumphreyP1080561

48 thoughts on “Angels in Our Midst

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful and moving post. You captured what so many of us have experienced who have or who have lost elderly parents. And yes, there are “angels who walk among us” everywhere, every day. Kindness matters. May all of us learn from the angels that you described.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My stepson moved back to the US after completing his Masters in Britain late last year. So far he has been unable to secure a job teaching history (partly because despite a double major in History and French from a good US school and a Masters in Renaissance studies from a good UK school he still needs a specific teaching degree which will take another year or two of study which will cost him money). Anyway, he has been working as a care giver in a small unit for severely brain injured clients since December. To the outside observer, it is thankless work but he says it is the most worthwhile thing he has ever done in his life. He is a well educated young white man. Most of his co-workers are little educated ethnic minorities but they all have the most important thing in common – they care. These angels that walk amongst us are to be celebrated and your gentle and thoughtful post does just that. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There is much to-do in the U.S. about the lack of jobs for “real men” in the U.S.–those manly factory jobs. But caregiving requires muscles (especially a strong back!) as well as a big heart. When the jobs get paid the wages they deserve, maybe more men will do that kind of work. Give your son a hug on behalf of the grateful families of the people he cares for.

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  3. Your essay had me blubbering on the bus on the way to work.
    I dread the day my mother will not longer be able to care for herself.
    Her worst fear is losing her independence and being put into a nursing home.
    Blessing to you and the dear caretakers you wrote about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good luck to you and to her. Moving out of one’s home and into a place with help (whether that’s the home of a family member or assisted living or whatever) doesn’t carry the same excitement as, say, moving into one’s first house or apartment. It’s so important to keep in mind what they are thinking and feeling.

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  4. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Your end quote reminded me of something I heard once and often repeat about schools as well, a version of the same idea really: they should be judged not by students who succeed in them but by those who do not. If we are not supporting the most fragile and marginalized among us, what good are we doing? The world needs voices for kindness and compassion – keep talking.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No kidding. I remember helping my grandmother when she first moved into a care home – so many nooks and crannies in grannies… but we were fortunate to have angels on our side too. I will always be grateful for their compassion and care.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautifully written. I have been through this and it is one of those experiences that defines your life—before and after—and never the same. I think we are all a bit like Blanche, in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I always depend on the kindness of strangers.” And with many good things, pay it forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “When the wider public sees see them, do they realize they are encountering angels—heroes? Do they realize these angels are making America great? Or do they just see dark skin and hear an accent?” So beautifully put! The reverence for the aged is a gift to all of us. So telling that it is a given in some cultures, and so utterly lacking in others.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have been receiving your posts for some time and whilst enjoying your posts and learning from your wonderful word pictures today is the day I had to respond and say thank you and hope to meet you in the near future

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh thank you for this post today! My dad is in assisted living, and while he is content there, I wish he had chosen to be closer to one of his kids, so we could keep a closer eye on him. But he didn’t, so the angel for our family is our friend Pam, who is now our sister. She visits Dad at least 3 times a week, she makes sure his little room is actually clean, that he has everything he needs, including clean clothes and his favorite snacks, and she fiercely demands that the staff (who are wonderful, but woefully overworked) do every single thing they are supposed to do. And she reports to us on a weekly basis. Most importantly, she loves my dad like one of his own. What in the world would we do without our Pam? Thank goodness we don’t need to find out. xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a beautiful post! And the place that your parents lived sounds wonderful. I would love to spend my days in a house which such caring and interring people. I love the idea of a kitchen as the heart of the home and a place for people to come together. How very blessed your parents were to have such kind and caring people surrounding them. That seems a rare thing these days. I too ponder the fate of the old, myself included when it is my time as I do not have children and wonder who will advocate for me or usher me from my final days.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some institutions really aren’t like institutions, and it shows how much good design can help people feel cared for rather than “instituionalized.”
      I think most of the people who work in them, whether the place is fancy or barebones, are caring and really dedicated. But in some, staffing levels just aren’t enough, and certainly the workers earn every penny and deserve more.

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  10. When my Dad passed from assisted living at the same care facility, the manager came up to me at the funeral. She had been crying. How many funerals do you think she had been to? But she found it in her character to care yet again and tell me how special my father was! And hugged me. I will never forget that.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I do not KNOW WHY I DONOT RECIVE YOUR POSTS………PLEASE FORGIVE ME FOR BEING ABSENT!
    THIS WAS SO TRUTHFUL AND ENGAGING AS I AM GOING THROUGH THIS WITH MY 92 YEAR OLD MOTHER NOW!
    THE CAREWORKERS GET MINIMUM WAGE………AND YOU ARENOT ALLOWED TO TIP!(I DO!)I COULDNOT DO WHAT THEY DO…………….
    I FIND HER SKIN IS CHANGING AND HER HANDS ARENOT WHAT THEY USE TO BE….OF MY MOTHER’S.THAT IS HARD FOR ME………..SHE SEEMS HAPPY ENOUGH BUT IT DOES BOTHER ME WE DONOT HAVE HER AT HOME!I CAN NOT LIFT NOR GET UP 3 TIMES A NIGHT TO ASSIST HER TO THE BATHROOM AS I HAVE HEALTH ISSUES OF MY OWN……….THE ITALIAN OFFERD TO PUT RAMPS IN OUR HOME AND GET A NIGHT NURSE.I DECLINED…….AS I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE TOO DRAINING ON ME,MYSELF AND I!BUT NOW THAT I HEAR THEY PUT THE ELDERLY OUT FOR AN ANIMAL TO EAT……………….THAT IS JUST HORRIFIC!!!!!!!!!
    YOU HAVE GIVEN ME FOOD FOR THOUGHT!!!
    GRAZIE BELLA………AND AGAIN AM SO SORRY I HAVE BEEN MISSING OUT!!!I WILL TRY TO REMEMBER TO LOOK FOR YOUR POSTS……..DO YOU ANNOUNCE ON IG LIKE I DO?????DO IT!!!!!!!
    XX

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am very lazy with IG; it’s when I remember. I post on the blog on Tuesdays and Fridays around 7 a.m. Eastern time. If you go to the “About” page, at the bottom there’s a button that should let you subscribe by email, or else you can subscribe on Bloglovin’ (how I follow you and most blogs).
      My dad was definitely happy to have people around all the time and he would have been bored and lonely at home or with family (who would have had to go to work). My mom was more into her own projects and happy to be alone; she would have hated moving in with any of her kids. It’s hard to lose independence, and everybody reacts differently. The important thing is to enjoy your time with your mother and not beat yourself up over what you can or can’t do for her.

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  12. So well said and heartfelt. Only thing I would suggest is family get together before the needs arise, talk over these issues, so everyone is aware and hopefully on the same page of awareness even if not total agreement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know what, that is really hard because it’s a moving target. So it’s great to have certain ideas about things, but when the moment arrives, some might see it for one thing while others refuse to admit it. It is very important to have advance directives, done with somebody with medical knowledge, because saying “no tubes” is really too vague.

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  13. Such a moving post and a great reminder to value the caretakers in our lives. We have also been fortunate to have many wonderful people who have helped us with both our disabled son and aging parents (when they were still with us). I agree, whatever they are paid, it isn’t enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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