Sanitized Death

My daughter and I go to the nursing home so often that the head nurse rolls her eyes when she sees us, we are there almost every day. My husband jokes that we must wear a visitor’s badge every time otherwise they might not let us go, thinking that we were patients.
We did not place mom in a nursing home to abandon her there; we wanted her to have round-the-clock care that our small family could not provide. We were told that Medicare only paid for three hours a week of in-home care and Medicaid paid eight hours per day. It is certainly not part of our culture to put a loved one in a nursing home. Back then we had a very large and extended family who took turns to care for someone really sick or with long-term disability. There were few nursing homes in operation and those had the reputation of killing factories.
Today Wendy’s room is empty and is being scrubbed by the staff. The heavy smell of chlorine is permeating the halls. It is not unusual – it happens periodically when Wendy is gone to dialysis. But Wendy is gone forever. Her heart stopped the day before, shortly after her elderly mom and brother left from their trice-a-week visits. Wendy suffered for eighteen years and eventually was brought to this nursing home, blind and unable to talk or move, as her mom became increasingly unable to care for her at home.
Wendy, a tiny and gaunt blue-eyed woman, is in a better place now, no longer crying in pain day and night, only stopping when exhaustion put her into a short and agonizing slumber, or when my mom went in to talk to her in a soothing motherly voice in Romanian. There was not a spot left on her hands that mom could touch to comfort her that did not have bruises or sores from repeated needle punctures. Sometimes her veins would bleed when she returned from dialysis.
They are scrubbing Wendy’s room spotless. Death is sanitized in this culture. People are so insensitive to dying because death is whisked away. When our loved ones pass, they are whisked away to the funeral home for embalming or cremation. There is no coffin on the dining room table for the customary three-day wake while families in the village or in town come to express their condolences to all relatives present.
Even when our beloved pets die, the veterinarian euthanizes them and disposes of their bodies in an incinerator or the owner buries them in the back yard. It is all sanitized death. We mourn their passing in a very civilized way which whisks the pain and suffering of death away and scrubs all evidence.
People usually die alone in hospitals or in their sleep. Few get their last rites or someone holding a burning candle for them. We are born into this world alone, in the presence of our mothers or perhaps an attending medic if we live in a western culture, and often we die alone, or in the presence of a stranger, if we are lucky to have anyone around at all.
We see sanitized death in movies and gratuitous violence resulting in death, but it is divorced from pain, from reality, it is just celluloid gore and blood.
There are residents in the nursing home who no longer have any relatives to speak for them. As the staff turnover is so constant, I often wonder how well these people are treated. I met a patient rights representative a year ago in the hallway, she gave me a brochure, but I have not seen her since.
We have argued with the medical staff to provide a slightly wider bed for mom because she keeps falling out when she turns. Bed rails are considered cruel and a form of restraint. But they do not hesitate to strap heavy electronic bracelets on a thin and emaciated wrist to make sure the patient does not wonder off the property.
We were informed that Medicare dictates that a patient must be considerably overweight before a slightly larger bed is allowed. We live in a culture in which we are told, we are too fat for airplane seats and for our own health, but in a nursing home, being fat provides a more comfortable bed.
Every time we visit, we take time to talk to the patients who are able to come out of their rooms, patients we know, who do not have relatives coming to see them, they live too far away or are gone.
We wished the staff would allow us to bring Gary, the longest resident there, pancakes like his mother used to cook for him when she was alive. He still remembers her even though he has difficulty expressing himself. Gary told my daughter how delicious they were and his eyes sparkled with a momentary twinkle of joy. Then his head slumped down in a resigned frown.
Death is sanitized and whisked away from the corridors of pain and suffering.

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