We’ve all heard the stories—the stories of people being starved, abused, left to die in conditions so grim we try to forget what we know.
We’ve all seen the pictures of the emaciated bodies withered to the point of paper thin skin hanging on bones, the look of defeat in those eyes.
We’ve all imagined the cries and moans in the darkest hour of night when the world turns so lonely, even Death seems like a friend. We don’t call these places of neglect and suffering concentration camps—we prefer to call them nursing homes.
The dirty little secret of most nursing homes is that the families know what happens there. You can’t walk in the front doors without smelling stale urine, seeing “the elderly” lined up against the walls in wheelchairs, reclining on donated couches—their eyes fixed either on the floor, or television screens droning the dime-store justice of courtroom dramas.
Few speak. Some attempt smiles and nods. Most resign themselves to the fact that they will never taste fresh air again, never drive a car again, never see their families again.
Not all nursing homes are depressing places to visit. There are some, I’m sure, where the residents play games, sing songs, and are treated with the respect they deserve. I can only speak of my own experience with nursing homes and the experiences that other people have shared with me.
Both of my mother’s parents spent their last months in a nursing home. I did not visit like I should have. I would start to cry just walking through the front doors and seeing people who knew their families had tucked them into these “homes” because watching them age had become too much.
Certainly, many residents of a nursing home are there because they cannot care for themselves, or else they’ve deteriorated mentally to the point where they need constant supervision. Such was the case of my grandparents.
My grandfather had Parkinson’s and had suffered a stroke. He couldn’t walk. Speaking was a struggle for him. Yes, my aunts and cousins would spend time with him regularly.
But, my heart ached, literally, every time I stood in his room—usually darkened, an out of focus television playing a random football game (I didn’t even know he cared that much about football. Maybe he didn’t). He could not speak easily, so the visits were mostly silent.
I might’ve only visited my grandmother once. True, I did live ten hours away by that time, but still, seeing her waste away was hard. I should not have been so selfish. How much harder was the experience on these two people I loved and cared about.
We know that people are abused in nursing homes. We know that nursing homes are short-staffed and cut corners. We know that people who go into nursing homes tend to slowly starve. My parents and I saw first-hand the conditions in which these people lived.
Oh, well, maybe you think it’s a money issue. State run institutions just don’t have the money to lavish quality care on elderly patients. Sometimes, families cannot pay for the luxury of in-home nurses, or care facilities that look more like apartments than cold hospital rooms.
Money? Should that even be an issue when it comes to our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles? Why don’t we spend more money on these people whose lives have been spent caring for us?
Is it because we don’t think we’ll ever end up in a nursing home? Is it the false confidence of youth? I’m sure our children are keeping a close watch on how we treat our own parents. And, this is the way our society and culture take care of our caretakers.
Sometimes, though I would never want to trivialize the suffering of millions of people in the Holocaust, I cannot help but think of nursing home like concentration camps.
For how many years have people been neglected, abused, starved, or worse in these “homes”? How many millions of lives have been lost because our society does not think it worthy to spend more money on our loved ones?
Our society’s greedy black heart is never more obvious than when one steps into a nursing home.
We all know what happens in most of these places. We all find these places depressing. And, yet, what do we do about it? We are complicit in our overwhelming silence on this issue.
Sometimes, I like to think that if I had been unfortunate enough to live in Nazi Germany, and had not been one sent to the camps, that I would’ve fought against them, that I would’ve joined any type of resistance—no matter what the sacrifice. I like to think that I am better than those Germans who turned a blind eye to the mass destruction of generations of people.
But, cold, hard truth be told, if the way I’ve ignored what happens in nursing homes is any judge, then I would’ve been one of the worst offenders of the guilt of willingful ignorance.
We should demand higher standards for our elderly and be willing to pay whatever price necessary because while today it may be your sickly grandmother who cannot speak or care for herself, who has resigned herself to a fate of neglect and starvation, tomorrow—it’ll be you.