The Nursing Home Experience

Back in my younger days, one of my favorite books was a 1961 non-fiction account called “Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffin. Mr. Griffin was a white journalist who darkened his skin enough to pass for Black and then took a tour of the Deep South to see how he would be treated. Of course, he was treated horribly – it was the height of Jim Crow, soon to be challenged by the Civil Rights revolution.

nursing home

What made the book so intriguing, at least to a 15-year-old white kid, was that he could actually pull this off and then simply change the color of his complexion and no longer experience the lifelong hardship and mistreatment of being Black in the South. The experiment lasted six weeks and was clever and illuminating.

When I first became paralyzed with transverse myelitis, there was some early hope that I could recover once the inflammation subsided. At the time, I thought, “Hey, I could become the John Howard Griffin of paralysis” – able to tell the world the many misperceptions and indignities and then return to what others would call “normal.” That didn’t happen – I never recovered – and I was left to write about life with paralysis and never again, after paralysis.

Having just endured six and a half weeks confined to a rehab center – about the same time Mr. Griffin spent being Black – I came to realize, once I was back home and recovering, that I had experienced a short course in a situation that millions of older Americans will never escape or are just about to enter as a life sentence: the dreaded nursing home. They called it a rehab facility but there were no energetic, athletic types rehabbing and in fact, no one under the age of 60, maybe 70. I’m sure some people left at some point, but none of the people I met.

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I was there to heal my twice-operated-on left shoulder which I could not move or use that entire period. I had no option – a nurse or a CMA had to do everything but feed me. A Hoyer Lift planted me in my chair once a day and someone pushed me around. There was daily PT/OT and an occasional trip to the sun roof, but that was it.

Don’t get me wrong. This place was no Snake Pit or dumping ground for grandpa. It was as clean, efficient, and well-run as you could hope for. The food was above par for such places and the staff was beyond reproach. But, day after day after day, I felt increasingly sad and isolated, and dispirited. You could grouse about the periodic indignities, like your roommate who was trapsed by your bed at three AM in his backless hospital gown or called out in pain or confusion in his sleep or often, through no fault of his own, didn’t smell good. But it was the atmosphere, the ambiance – the deadly seclusion – that created an almost permanent pale. Though many patients remained outwardly cheery and tried their darndest at PT every day to move from chair to walker or hold two balls at the same time, it often seemed like an exercise in biding time. You felt better but we all had to return to our beds. That was home.

To me, it was more of an exercise in counting the days. I could leave and in fact knew the exact day I was leaving. I was actually a little nervous anticipating life without the day and night dependency on a legion of skilled, professional helpers, but I survived and thrived, with the aid, of course, of my family and come-to-the-house helpers. I was, looking back, no more than a weekend visitor to that sterile, sequestered realm. It wasn’t a prison, but it was imprisoning.

Like most things, it’s something you have to experience yourself to truly understand.

About the Author - Allen Rucker

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

Allen Rucker

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.