Just the words "nursing homes" gave me mental images of seniors who had no one to care for them and were being forced to live out their lives tied to a bed. Now, after six months of experiencing, first-hand, the care and compassion of a home that dedicates everything they have to the well-being of my dad, I admit to judging books by their cover and am thankful these places exist.
Just like any other industry, nursing homes have, at times, been exposed as a place where staff members mistreat or neglect residents or drain every last cent from the patient and their family. Again, a few bad apples don't spoil the whole bunch.
I'm not sure what would have happened to Dad – or my sanity – if the decision hadn't been made to move him into a nursing home. I spent so many years vowing to never remove him from his home, I lost grip on the reality of how severe his dementia was becoming. My denial of his condition and the misconception I had of nursing homes had trapped us into a whirlwind that was steadily spinning out of control.
Just like each one of us in our day-to-day on the job tasks, staff at Dad's "place" may overlook shaving his werewolf ears or trimming his nails, but I can honestly say – these folks, whose career is to watch over our loved ones, should be commended, admired and thanked.
Sometimes Dad doesn't know who I am, but his lifelong stature of being polite kicks in and he's always friendly. It's becoming harder to have a conversation as his sentences are all chopped up and jumbled so I can only grab bits and pieces.
He looks as though I should understand every word and I pretend to, although I desperately want to know what he's thinking – only to realize he doesn't know what he's thinking.
I used to criticize people who only visited their loved ones once a week or even once a month while in a nursing home. Allowing "strangers" to become "family" as they provide the care and constant companionship that is so desperately needed for those we love but can't be their 24-hour caregiver.
I now understand how it's possible to grieve over someone you love, over and over again, while they are still alive.
My days are interrupted with guilt of not seeing Dad every day. Even though I always find him happy and healthy, it's a struggle to get through some visits. Sometimes I feel envious of the staff he adores, who he probably thinks are his daughters and now I'm the stranger.
When I rummage through all of these emotions and deal with them one by one, it all comes down to this.
Page 2 of 2 - Dad is safe, happy and surrounded by "daughters" who take great care of him. The relief they provide override all other emotions I may have. At times I may seem like a stranger to him, but I need to remember he's a stranger in his own world.
I found a new form of entertainment during our visits. He may not remember who I am, but apparently he hasn't forgotten how to play a good hand of poker.
Let the games begin.
Sandy Turner lives in the Kansas City area and writes this column for GateHouse Media.