By David Canter
My grandfather has been many things in his life: a serviceman in World War II when he was just 18, an engineer professionally, a father of 4 and a grandfather of many more, and an avid outdoorsman. Today, late in his life, and quite a few years since his initial diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease, he is much reduced in character, memory, and physical ability.
About 3 years ago while walking in his retirement community Grandpa Bob was hit by a car driven by another retiree. When it became clear that he would be permanently impaired by loss of muscle tone, the family was forced to face the reality that he would be forever incapable of living on his own. Subsequently, our family was forced to move Bob to an assisted living facility.
Then in high school, I witnessed the struggle undertaken by my mother, aunt, and uncle to find a suitable assisted living assisted living program for Bob. As a preoccupied teenager I was seldom privy to the details of this endless search for facilities first in New Jersey, where Bob had lived, and finally in Florida, close to my family home. What I did glean from the experience is that a family must research tirelessly online, in person, and often through the experiences of the elderly family member in order to find a suitable residence. Bob spent time in the memory wing of one assisted living program where he seemed cogent and spry compared to the other residents. The level of stimulation was so dismal and the attendants so inattentive that he was rightfully miserable. We had to move him out. Eventually, the family found a suitable assisted living program near home in Florida, one that is not exclusively catered towards memory loss.
My time with Grandpa
The staff of his assisted living facility seem to be in a constant state of business – they can only attend to the most basic needs of residents. Without the extra help Bob would be virtually alone. My family employs a handful of people to keep Bob company every waking hour. Returning home for a month of winter vacation during my junior year of college, I took a part time job working as a caretaker for my grandfather. If it wasn’t for the constant presence of these caretakers he would spend his days alone in his room or perhaps in a chair in the lounge. As a sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease, it is difficult verging on impossible for Bob to carry on a conversation or start friendships with other residents; it just takes too much patience to communicate with him.
My experience working in an assisted living program was defined by Alzheimer’s grip on my grandfather as well as the weakness of his body. The combination of these two hardships meant that the fulfillment of any need, be it the consumption of a meal, an urge to use the bathroom, or the need to move into bed for sleep, was an extremely slow and difficult process that can actually take upwards of a hour at his pace. My patience in such agonizing moments stems from my familial bonds with my grandfather; the other caretakers are generally motivated by their salary and/or personal kindness.
However, it is not hard to imagine that the employees of the assisted living residence lack the tolerance and time necessary to wait long minutes while Bob might attempt to stand again and again and many more minutes as he inches towards bed. They will predictably choose the shorter route, more efficient route- to pick him up under the arms and carry him to bed. Bob will never be comfortable with such brisk jostles. He simply moves too slowly, both mentally and physically, and is overwhelmed by these rough, economical movements. Inevitably his muscles tense and he curses those responsible for the treatment. For such a mild manner man, he certainly knows how to express himself!
This is what I learned
I was asked to explain what I learned from this experience for this article. My first lesson concerns how to choose the right assisted living facility for a family member: meet the staff and try to get to know them as best you can. After all, it seems to me that the staff has the largest responsibility for dictating the atmosphere of any given facility. What’s more, these are the individuals who are personally responsible for seeing after every need of the residents. Their involvement, or lack thereof, as well as their interest and care for the lives of the residents has a huge impact on quality of life in the assisted living community.
It is unfortunate, at least in the program where my grandfather lives, that the staff is not very well paid. Of the many staff members that I came to know during my time looking after my grandfather, a majority worked second jobs to help support their families. The wear of working long hours for minimal pay means that their motivation to provide top-notch care could certainly be compromised. This is why it is so important to meet not just the owner of a facility or the spokesperson, but the nurses and staff who worked with the elderly daily.
Assisted living programs pride themselves on the activities that they offer, be it musicians, games, church services, or whatever else. While these do seem break up the monotony of daily routine, it seems to me that outside involvement from family and friends does as much to increase the quality of life of residents as in house entertainment. I always thought that the most content residents in my grandfather’s residence were those who were frequently among those they cared about and those whose family had taken the time to set up their rooms with as much comfort from home as possible. Although it is sometimes tiring to visit a loved one again and again, week after week, it makes the difference for those in need of assisted living. In particular, I know that due to my Grandfather’s Alzheimer’s, the few people that he recognizes are family members. For this reason, the visits from his family do much for his outlook.
Depending on the outlook of a resident, assisted living appears to mean a variety of things, both positive and negative. It can mean better care, more attention, and a chance for stimulation and a social retirement. On the other hand, assisted living certainly means a loss of independence on many fronts. What seems most important is the care and support of family. Careful planning and research is crucial for finding the best program possible. Before you sign on the dotted line, survey the options, visit facilities, and meet staff.
Note: David Canter is a senior at Wesleyan University.