KERRY HUBARTT: Loneliness, helplessness felt by nursing home residents

Kerry Hubartt

The old man, failing eyes rimmed in red, studied the Christmas card he had just opened. He was moved by its expression of love, and suddenly he began to cry, saying, “I can’t even do this for you.”

At age 96, he was in a nursing home room on the dementia ward with two chairs, a TV, a wheelchair folded up at the foot of his twin-sized bed and a walker in front of him. He had a shelf on the wall with pictures of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Beside him was a simple plastic end table with his Bible, some papers, peanuts, tissue.

His sudden breakdown into tears reflected his feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. He couldn’t even go out and buy his true love a Christmas card, much less a gift. He has nothing to do from day to day, he says, other than his physical therapy routines, his regimented trips down the hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner, watching the birds in a small aviary in the room at the end of the hall or watching TV.

He can’t even read the large-print books from the nursing home’s library anymore because even that print is getting too small.

And he says nobody will take him to play pool in the billiards room. That had become his primary recreation for the past few years, which he really enjoyed. And now that he can’t leave his floor on his own, he says he can’t find anyone to accompany him.

He’s one of nearly 1.4 million people who reside in the 16,639 nursing homes in the United States, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute. The educational institute based in Los Angeles researches, analyzes and compiles statistics on mainstream areas of interest used by media and other information providers.

Some other statistics from its September survey this year: Average age of residents, 79; average annual cost of nursing care, $73,000, percentage of female residents, 66 percent.

And one more statistic of great concern for those confined to nursing care in their latest and most vulnerable time of life: Percentage of residents who say they have been neglected or seen another resident neglected, 95 percent.

This elderly man in particular is not literally neglected because there are three visitors in his room on this particular day after Christmas. And other family members come from time to time. His wife is always nearby in a condo that is part of the nursing facility’s campus. And the nurses and attendants are always down the hall and check on him regularly.

But the loneliness and helplessness felt by many of these dear people who are trying to hold on to their dignity and sense of purpose is nonetheless a real and frightening burden. And for this man, who was always active and creative throughout his lifetime, the endless days of idleness and seemingly interminable loneliness between visitors, whether family or nurses, compounds the agony of meaningless time.

Death, the old man says more often these days, would be a welcome end. Why, he laments during his brief spell of weeping, should I wake up to another day of the same old nothing?

And I can’t answer him sufficiently other than to say, “Because I love you, Dad.”

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.