When I was in grade two, my mother got very sick. She required surgery and could no longer care for her eight children. In the 50s surgery usually meant a long hospital stay and an even longer home recovery. Together with my father they decided it was best to send the oldest four children to a convent to finish that school year.
The youngest four children went to live with relatives. The convent was a five-hour drive from our home and staffed with Catholic nuns who operated a nursing home, a retirement home for their own religious community members, and a boarding school for children ~ all in one large facility.
To the best of my knowledge, our mother visited us once during the school year but according to my older sister, she recalled two or three such visits. Being so young, I was certain this was a permanent placement and I would never see my parents again. Family life as I knew it in my first seven years of life was over. The routine at the convent was the same daily, weekly, and monthly. Each younger student was assigned an older student who supervised the brushing of teeth, bathing with a long cotton robe, and going to bed with our hands clutched together as if we were praying in order to get a hard, black piece of candy the nuns made.
A reflection of two experiences
Life experiences are often gifts in disguise. At this young age and when my parents decided to institutionalize me at the convent, the experience was devastating for me.
I feared not seeing my parents ever again; living with my brothers and sisters; playing in our backyard; and all the dreams a young child has at age seven. I also cried myself to sleep and once when I fell on the ice skating ring, I prayed that if there was a God, I would be sent back home to recover from my dislocated shoulder ~ no such luck.
These same feelings I have heard expressed by many nursing home residents over the years. Of course these individuals are mature people with a life of experiences behind them. Still they tell me about the fear of not being able to return home; the loneliness of being away from their family; the routines and meals being served they have trouble to stomach sometimes; and the deep sadness and depression they feel ~ even expressing they wish they could die.
Lessons of my childhood applied today
I can draw a parallel between my experience in the convent and my husband’s experience in the nursing center with advanced Alzheimer’s. I have an informal partnership agreement with the facility in order to continue providing hands-on family care for him in addition to the services he receives.
There is a phone call from me to the nursing staff daily and many times I am able to speak with him directly as he has a phone in his room. I find ways to let him know that he is never alone as I am here for him.
When I receive a call because he is sick, I immediate grab my overnight bag which is always packed and ready to go. I drive five hours from our home to the nursing center to be by his side. I have decorated his room with the planets in his windows because he loves astronomy; an airplane mobile on his ceiling since he spends a lot of time in bed and he retired as a maintenance aircraft officer in the Air Force; and lots of large, framed family photos around him to look at. I have made his room his sanctuary, his home away from home.
The loneliness and sadness is just as intense for a young child away from home as for an adult away from their home. Living in a nursing center can never be the same as living at home; no more than living in the convent was the same as living at home for me when I was seven. They have rules and regulations to follow. Although the nursing staff does all they can do to make their residents comfortable, at least that is the case with my husband, they are often short of staff to cover every detail. My experience at the convent in the mid-50s prepared me emotionally for what my husband is living today ~ was it faith, a gift, or both? You decide.
About the writer:
Ethelle G. Lord, former president of the Maine Gerontological Society of Maine, runs Alzheimer’s coaching and consulting business at RememberingforYou.com. She is married to Maj. Larry S. Potter, USAF retired, and lives in Mapleton.