nursing home ptsdI have a wonderful friend who’s been like a mother to me. She calls me her “other” daughter, and my kids think of her as a bonus grandmother. Her name is Ruth.

Ruth celebrated her 100th birthday in December. She still lives completely independently, and enjoys going out with family members who love the opportunity to share her company. She’s sharp as a tack, and loves to discuss current affairs, politics, and our baseball Cardinals.

Unfortunately, Ruth was hospitalized last month with a brief illness. I visited her daily to check on her and make sure she was getting what she needed.

After a week she was released to rehab to help her regain strength. Once there, my daily visits were prompted by the desire to keep Ruth company, and not allow her to feel abandoned or forgotten in the institutional setting, lovely as this one was. I spent mornings with her, and her son came in the afternoons, so we knew what was going on, and she had distractions from her sometimes wailing roommate.

In the first days of her stay, I would stroll down the hall and look for her in the therapy center. If she was indeed getting her daily physical therapy, I would be waved in by the staff, and would sit with her while she practiced leg lifts or played balloon catch with the therapist. We’d chat. The therapists were charmed by this delightful woman, always amazed to learn her age. They’d consistently peg her as 80-ish. That’s our Ruth.

As the days went on, however, I’d find myself tightening my jaw as I walked the halls. I noticed that my fists were clenched as I approached the nurses’ station. I began to have flashbacks to the 1983-1990 years that were my late mother’s nursing home odyssey.

Things that hadn’t entered my mind for many years came back to me like a flood of biblical proportions. Memories long suppressed of how Alzheimer ’s  took her at an early age swept over me every time I walked through those corridors. The empty-eyed, hunched-over elderly, lining the halls evoked images of my mother in her various stages of decline.

She endured three nursing homes in all. The first was a residential care home. She was there a short time when she lost the ability to speak or recognize us.

When my father passed away in 1987 I became her legal guardian.  I moved her to a nearer and newer, skilled nursing facility. In this location, though, she endured an ongoing series of urinary tract infections, which, in her fragile state led to repeated hospitalizations. Eventually, reality hit me: (“Hello? Neglect? Is that you?”) I moved her to the Shangri-la of nursing homes. At last she received excellent care. This facility was part of the same chain as the one Ruth was in, and although it’s now 23 years later, and the décor is fresh and new, the similarities (not to mention the names) picked away at the scabs on my psyche.

Now, although I was there visiting an alert centenarian, I could almost feel my mother’s presence. Despite the engaging conversations Ruth and I were having, I couldn’t shake the sense of despair and loss that I had buried long ago. Each time I had to check with a nurse about Ruth’s medication, my stomach tied in a knot. When I would touch base with the social worker about a care plan for Ruth’s release, my head hurt.

It became increasingly difficult for me to set foot in the place. I’d pull into a parking space there and sit for ten minutes, trying to convince myself to go in. I had to practice yoga breathing to function, and put on a happy face when I greeted Ruth. Once I was in her presence, I was fine. But after I’d help her get seated in her dining chair for lunch, I’d kiss her goodbye, and it would all start up again. Pounding heart, shallow breaths, tight jaw, clenched fists.

I also noticed how much trouble I was having focusing on my own life. I’d forget to plan something for dinner, and would have to make extra trips to the supermarket. Then I’d have a chicken in the oven and nothing to go with it. I was completely unable to make phone calls to friends. I started taking naps in the afternoon.

By the end of her 21 rehab days, I realized that this wasn’t just about my mother. I had begun to see myself as the next in line. At 63, I’m not that far away from being the one in the bed or the chair, with empty eyes and unanswered pleas for help, from being incompetent to live on my own, or just another patient to a series of anonymous caregivers.

The day Ruth went home, I was giving my daughter a long-distance update on her “Gramma Ruth.” She told me I sounded tired. Unexpectedly, I unleashed my feelings about being in the nursing home, and how it had affected me.

She said, “Mom! Of course this was horrific– you have PTSD when it comes to nursing homes. The whole Grandma thing was a nightmare.”

Click.  How did I raise such a smart and insightful kid?

She really nailed it—my mother’s journey was my journey, too, and it was traumatic for me in a million ways.

When my mother died in 1990 I was 40 years old with adolescent kids. Now I’m a multiple grandma with an empty nest, a wrinkled neck, and age spots on my hands. I know I’m privileged to get this far; we all know people who were not so fortunate. But sometimes the future is scary.

I’m glad my daughter was able to define this. With this added perspective, I’ll try to stay out of the combat zones, at least emotionally. If the PTSD should recur, I will ask for help, now that I know its name.

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