To some now living in nursing homes, the Depression and Second World War were not only sections of a history book. It was a part of their lives. Yet, here we are in the twenty-first century. Many of these people remember a time with no electricity, telephones, televisions or computers, things many of us take for granted. And the stories they can offer will be as quietly heart-warming as they are heart-rending.
I shouldn’t have to say these people are deserving of our utmost respect. Still, in this rough and tumble world, where time is money and money is king, sometimes, we forget.
Ultimately, nursing homes need to be “places,” in the true sense of the word. They need to be homes wherein small, individuated moments are defined by a sense of place. These must be poignant moments where we simply say to these men and women, thanks for staying for a while.
The Problems of Nursing Homes
Some of us have no doubt seen the numerous problems plaguing nursing homes. I used to volunteer at our local nursing home in Placentia. I must say I truly enjoyed working with the residents. The first step would see me interviewing them or perhaps one of their loved ones in order to get their life story. Then, using the photographs they or their loved ones could provide, I’d make a graphical display of their lives.
Every display I’d begin with a photograph of the resident in their teens or twenties. It was meant as a reminder to the staff or visitors of how that hunched over silver-haired person used to be just like they are!
One day, I was meeting one of the residents. When I entered the room, I learned he was elsewhere. But the gentleman sharing his room had unfortunately had an accident that needed to be cleaned. Apologising, I quickly excused myself while he waited for an attendant to come. A little later, I was down the hallway when I heard the attendant who had come to clean this man and the bathroom. She was quite audibly saying, with no small amount of sarcasm—“This is why I love my job.”
For me, it exhibited such unfettered nastiness and unkindness. Of course this gentleman was deeply ashamed. Who wouldn’t be? The last thing he needed was someone making an issue of what had happened. This is an example of only one of the careless situations occurring in nursing homes.
A friend of my mother, a 93 year old woman living in a seniors residence has described how the attendants sometimes push her. It’s clearly a form of physical abuse. It’s something that can take the form of pushing, but also include hitting, grabbing or slapping. Oftentimes, the resident may be suffering from dementia, in some form or another and so, the abuse will go unnoticed.
Nursing homes are also the site of mental abuse, with too many experiencing things such as loneliness, emotional, or verbal abuse. The examples are many and varied for the latter, each inexcusable—insults, yelling, demeaning comments and so on. At other times, seniors are exposed to financial abuse by those around them, sometimes at the hands of family or friends. They sometimes lose tens of thousands of dollars. Otherwise, seniors in nursing homes may even suffer from malnourishment, simply because no one is checking to ensure they are indeed eating.
Overworked and Understaffed
Nursing homes are filled with people who need to be fed and medicated given the presence of diseases, such as diabetes. There are some residents who now require assistance with all aspects of their lives—eating, drinking, going to the bathroom. If this assistance is not given, the consequences are both obvious and grave. Although making certain there are people who can care for seniors is a problem on its own.
The problems in nursing homes may be due to the maliciousness of a health professional. Still, they’re more likely due to a lack of staff or long hours and the unfortunate consequences that result from such a situation.
Photo by Jonathan Borba.
Sadly, there’s a global shortage of nurses, something that’s been with us for decades. So, it’s no surprise nursing homes are understaffed. As a result, the workload increases for those who are remaining. The results of this are obvious. High amounts of stress and frustration, a situation that simply compounds the problems and makes things worse for the seniors living in the nursing home. They deserve better.
I’m sure, many would be able to produce a long list of what’s going wrong in nursing homes. Instead, lets take a moment to look at how things could be better.
How to Get There
One of the goals would be to create a “place” from the space occupied by that nursing home. What does that mean?
The nursing home is a location in space defined by an address, perhaps a latitude and longitude for those seeking a more precise location. The goal is for the healthcare workers to collectively make that space—the nursing home—into a place by finding ways to create meaning.
It can’t only be about providing food, a roof over someone’s head, or ensuring the proper medication is administered. These are all critical. But they’re not vivifying. And that’s essential when people are in the latter part of their life.
The staff in a nursing home need to usher residents into the places in their lives that have been punctuated with moments of meaning. These are places defined by patience, compassion, respect, laughter, and love.
Creating A Sense of Place
For the residents of any nursing home, their sometimes quiet demeanour conceals a life of experiences—people, places and events that have urged an array of emotions and shaped the tenor of their lives. The words and stories of the people who reside at nursing homes often embroider this history with a deeper, finer and richer meaning. These are lives having been lived sometimes with great ardour and sometimes, with relative ease. It doesn’t matter.
These meanings help shape, colour and texture a sense of place for the people residing at a nursing home. It is essential for a deep poignancy of meaning to be conjured in the words and feelings of residents.
It may be an afternoon spent listening to a gardener telling stories about the many plants that were a part of the lives of the residents. Otherwise, residents may be treated to a show of the music they recall from their yesteryears. Storytellers can conjure years gone by, helping to journey residents into their past. It can be magical.
Changes to Healthcare
In turn, the only way to open the door to meaning for residents is to ensure they are shown patience and kindness. To assist this, all the workers, the nurses, doctors, cooks, custodians, and administrators must be given the time and respect they need.
It is essential they be content in their work if they are to give patience, kindness and most importantly, time, to the residents. They need to be provided with sensible working hours, payment to reflect the work they do, and a simple regard for their lives.
For nurses, in particular, much of the burnout and shortage that has been epidemic for far too long, is due to these elements not being provided. Doctors and nurses, all health care workers, provide life-giving care. Of all people, they need to be treated with a respect for their humanity. Simple and straightforward.
If this can be provided for the healthcare workers, they, in turn, can provide the means by which residents can develop a sense of place in the various nursing homes.
Nursing homes can be places where a share of heartbeats can work to ensure the health and well-being of residents and perhaps most importantly, conjure a meaningful life for them, too.
Carlson, Eric 2023 “25 Common Nursing Home Problems—& How to Resolve Them” https://justiceinaging.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/25-Common-Nursing-Home-Problems-and-How-to-Resolve-Them_Final.pdf
Geographical Association 2009 “Annual Conference and Exhibition: Investugating Geography” University of Manchester 16-18 April 2009
Wikipedia 2023 “Nursing shortage in Canada” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nursing_shortage_in_Canada
Nursing Home Abuse Guide 2023 “Nursing Home Understaffing” https://www.nursinghomeabuseguide.org/neglect/understaffing
Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP 2023 “Most Common Problems In Nursing Homes” https://www.spanglaw.com/blog/2019/september/most-common-problems-in-nursing-homes/