Artist and writer Susan MacLeod observes the foibles, humor, and caring of life in a nursing home. There, she and her mother finally came to know each other.
Nursing homes may be the closest thing we in the West have to the charnel grounds of traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture, but with some important differences. In Tibet, charnel grounds are rocky, out-of-the-way places where people place their dead to decompose out in the open, and they visit them to be reminded of impermanence and the certainty of death. In the West,nursing homes are where we place our near-dead, and we don’t want to visit them. In the West, we deny death, resist impermanence, and run like hell in the other direction to avoid the ugliness of extreme old age.
Most nursing home residents have reached a state where getting out of bed, going to the toilet alone, and seeing, hearing, and communicating are beyond their body. Their minds and memories have left them to one degree or another.
To the uninitiated, the frail and elderly are boring. They sometimes smell. And they’re so very ponderous about everything. They can’t keep up. Of course, we can’t slow down.
My attitude was no different.
My mother and I did not have an open, loving relationship—more of a coldly respectful one with a bucket list of unspoken resentments and mistrust. Where she was a practical and competent conformist, I was an artistic and defiant dreamer, especially during my immature, nonconformist youth, when you could describe me as “difficult.”
We clashed regularly, as she was always trying to make me fit into society as she knew it—making me learn to cook, sew, and type. I was angry she couldn’t see me for who I was and what I could do—my drawing and my creative, albeit improbable, ideas. She saw no value in honing either of those attributes, and said so. In response, I took tantrums.
Even in my adult years, we mistrusted each other. I remember buying a wonderful new winter coat. When I showed it off to her, strutting like a fashion model, she looked me up and down, and said, “Well, I suppose you don’t have much time to shop.” Instantly, I was the wrong child making the wrong decisions.
In general, our communication was reduced to a polite distance, avoiding speaking the truths we felt about our unsatisfying relationship. She had learned to dislike herself at a young age and had taught me the same. Neither of us knew how to talk about hard emotions.
Our relationship changed when she entered a nursing home at age ninety-four. To be with her there was frightening and sad. I didn’t want to go visit her every day, or even every second day. The nursing home was miles away from where I lived, and I dreaded seeing people so clearly at life’s end. I wanted to pretend Mom was doing fine, that placing her there was as far as my obligations went.
Without my meditation practice, I don’t think I could have gotten through it.
Repelling what we don’t want is misguided. This is one of the first things I learned on my Buddhist path. The starting point of the path is suffering, and sickness, old age, and death require peaceful abiding, rather than hope, fear, or especially ignorance.
Unconsciously, my meditation practice began to express itself in everyday life and became present in this situation as well. Albeit reluctantly, I made my way to see Mom regularly. Like meditation, it took discipline. I was always uneasy, not knowing what to expect, how to act, what to do, what to say. I also carried an underlying anger that I was the sibling stuck doing it.
Despite all this, I knew it was important to remain open for Mom’s sake, as at some level I loved her deeply, beyond the itch of aggravation. So I began to slow down to see what was really going on.
I started to communicate with Mom in the ways she wanted, not the ways I did. I recalled her interests, her habits, her conversations, and I catered to them. I brought her gifts such as small animated toys I found tacky but that made her laugh. Always bored with history, Mom’s passion, I now read up on it to initiate conversations. I encouraged my daughter, living in London where Mom was born, to send postcards. Generously, she flooded Mom’s mailbox with oversized cards featuring the Queen or tourist shots of double-decker buses and Big Ben. I taped them up on every free surface in Mom’s room, and she would laugh and point gleefully at them. Our relationship was no longer about me and my tastes, comfort levels, or expectations of her.
It was far from easy. It was exhausting, in fact, to pay such attention, but with no other family there, it was necessary and indeed worth it. To my surprise, I gradually grew fonder and fonder of her and who she was at heart.
When I slowed down to be fully with Mom, I also saw more depth in the nursing home experience than I had expected. People who live in nursing homes are full of life. Beneath the restrictions of their diminishing physicality and cognition, their spirit is often strong; I know my mother’s was. And the more I visited her, the stronger and more loving she became. She would break out in a joyful grin whenever she saw me walk down the corridor, a far cry from the critical look up and down or remark about my unruly hair that I was used to from her.
Her fellow residents began to show me who they were too. Rather than rush by them, speeding to get to my mother’s room and its relative safety, I started to actually see them. I began to greet each one. I learned their names and something about them so we could converse regularly. We made jokes with each other. I would often find myself with a smile on my face looking across the dining room as I helped Mom eat, the complete opposite of the look of horror I first wore when sitting in that room.
Then I began drawing the residents. For me, it was a natural way of seeing who they were, of showing what I saw, of letting them speak for themselves, and of letting them show themselves. It brought such richness I even asked permission to go to a nursing home closer to my home to draw the residents there.
One of my favorite residents to draw was Suzanne. If the sadness of impermanence can make us depressed, Suzanne was having none of it. She was a wheelchair-bound solo Greek chorus of positive validation, and always had something encouraging to say. The director of nursing told me that Suzanne fully endorsed any new procedure or change in her treatment protocol with an enthusiastic, “Oh, yes!” Every day, Suzanne also made sure to compliment the staff, words expressing astonished praise at all they did for her and those around her.
Suzanne often spoke with deep affection about her late husband, whom she described as tall and brilliant, and would say how terribly she missed him. Once she said she had asked him how people could be so cruel and he replied, “Suzanne, I don’t know. But we don’t have to be.”
Suzanne would become momentarily sad after talking about him, but recovered, sometimes with a wholehearted rendition of a favorite hymn in full voice.
Later, a friend and I volunteered to do large group drawings for the residents about local historic topics of interest to them. After our first drawing session, we asked the group if they wanted us to return. Suzanne, in the front row, replied cheerfully, “Oh, yes!” Then she paused, and said matter-of-factly, “Well, if we’re still here. We die, you know.”
The day came when I found her place in the dining room empty. I was sad and, believe it or not, shocked. She didn’t seem to have death inside her.
Evelyn, who died at 107, was unafraid of the inevitable. She would say, “I don’t know why He doesn’t come and take me.” Then she’d pause for effect and say, “Maybe He’s waiting for me to improve!” Then she’d roar with laughter.
I have read this quote in my Buddhist studies: “Fear is the natural reaction to nearing the truth. It may all come down to fear of death. Or fear of tenderness. Smile at fear, make friends with it. When we look at fear with gentleness, it’s not solid.” Suzanne, Evelyn, and many other frail elderly people seem to know this, without having been formally taught it.
There are no social conventions in charnel grounds and there aren’t many social filters among the elderly. Occasionally, I’ve been told off. My mother’s tablemate took an almost instant dislike to me. “Oooohhh, aren’t we lucky to have you here helping us,” she’d say with a nasty, dripping sarcasm as I buttered her bread. In truth, I was feeling a little smug in my self-appointed role as Useful Kind Helper. It’s possible she saw right through me and shoved my halo off. The phenomenal world is your guru. I was getting a little too comfortable at the charnel grounds.
Mom too became unconstrained in expressing the opinions she held strongly her whole life. She despised my idol Diana, the Princess of Wales, and would shut down any conversation involving her. She stated with loud ferocity more than once during the 2015 election in Canada, “I know who I’m not voting for.” But she never spoke critically of me anymore (at least not to my face).
After a few years I felt the urge to make change in the broken long-term care system, to meet this world halfway and see what I could contribute. I joined the board of a nonprofit home. Unlike boards of financial institutions or children’s hospitals, it’s far from sexy to sit on a nonprofit nursing home board. Governance volunteers are usually members of religious orders or family members longing to give back, and political influence is scarce.
Being on this board, I see—and learn—patience and perseverance, because a better situation for the elderly likely won’t come from the “system,” despite our best lobbying. We’ve had differing opinions, but I’ve always witnessed tender hearts among the members who keenly feel for the elderly and their overworked and underpaid care staff. I once saw our chairperson sob during a public address at the annual general meeting after mentioning his wife had died in the nursing home three years before. The audience quietly mourned with him.
During the final weeks of Mom’s life, each day I entered the nursing home it felt to me like walking straight into a fiery oven of inescapable, profound sadness. My mother was dying. In pain.
We had a few poignant conversations during that final time. Writhing in pain, she told me haltingly that she knew what was going on. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She shook her head, a determined “no.” After a grating breath, she said, with effort among several pauses, “I know you love me…I don’t know why you do…but it’s…wonderful.”
I hated seeing my mother dead.
When I walked in the room that last morning, after five years of visiting, I burst into reckless, uncontrollable sobs that came from a place deep, deep in my belly, a place I hadn’t known was there.
Yet mere days later, her death simply felt right. Nothing wrong.
I have often thought that children are a connection to basic goodness. So too are the frail and elderly. Many are no longer afraid to be who they are, be it sad, rude, in pain, or terrified. I gained a humanity I didn’t have before visiting nursing homes, and it was meditation that helped me expose this humanity and let it be there with me in my daily experience.
Fearless warriors live in nursing homes. And they deserve to be seen.