Aging in the Coronavirus Plague Year – part 5

. . . my "wellness" experience in a Senior Care Center and how I came out ahead

The Bethsaida Pool in Jerusalem

The experience I had as a rehab patient in a nursing home aka "Senior Care Center" started infamously and ended in triumph.  The triumph occurred, for me, because of my religious orientation (A Little Girl vs. a Priest and a Brother) which at the time of my surgery included being on the roster of preachers at my church.  And so the narrative of the experience made up my sermon during the season of Easter.  If the reader is not religious, understand that like Joseph Cambell, I  believe that the narratives of religion represent metaphors of humankind's yearnings.  It is what also caused me to take a look at my families' experiences with solutions to the aging parent problem. Herewith, part of my sermon:
John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew* Beth-zatha,* which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed.* One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

I started this year knowing that I needed to have surgery. I'd had surgery before, but this time was different. I am much older. Like many people my age, I'm taking medications that regulate bio-chemical processes with all the risks implied. Then the surgeon sent me a half-inch thick document outlining the dangers inherent in the surgery and its aftermath. I was concerned.

Then about two weeks before the surgery, I received my preaching assignment for the Easter Season, today's Gospel. As I read the story of the man who lived by the Sheep Gate for almost 40 years, I thought I saw a different message from other healing stories. This story was not so much about a physical healing of paralysis, but a healing story about spiritual empowerment.

“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks the man. The man answers that he has no one to take him to the healing pool. Jesus replies, “Stand up, take up your mat, and walk.”

In Jesus' answer, I hear an implied response to the man's waiting all those years. “Stop languishing by the Sheep Gate. Don't wait for someone to take you down to the pool. Stand up, take up your mat, and walk.”

I wasn't quite sure how I could or would use the Gospel and its message, but I pondered it as I approached the hour of my surgery. I went into the hospital on Wednesday and on Friday was transferred to a rehab facility,called a Senior Care Facility. It was an omen.

After I was deposited on my bed by the ambulance drivers, I was approached by a young woman doctor, an intern, for the intake interview. Her first question was: “Do you know what your name is?”

Imagined the words as notes of a ditty - sung by the cartoon character Betty Boop


“What the hell kind of a question is that to ask?” I shot back.

“Oh, we have to ask these questions.”  Same toon.

“Not like that, you don't”

Her next question was, “Can you feed yourself?”

“What is wrong with you?” I asked.

From there the weekend got worse. The daily physical therapy session that week-end seemed like nursery school with people tossing a beach ball back and forth while singing inane songs. What did this have to do with my leg and walking again?

I was subjected to various medical tests over the two days with no explanation of what was happening. I was expected to accept being jabbed, swabbed, and whatever else without question; to present my body as if it were a piece of meat. On Sunday afternoon, someone came in to take an x-ray. Again, no explanation.

On Monday morning when the daytime aide came in, I told her that I wanted a consultation with the doctor.

I thought that I would see the intern, but the doctor in charge of medical services came to see me. After a brief introduction, she asked what was wrong. I said, “First of all, I am accustomed to being informed and consulted about any matter relating to my health.” I described my experience that weekend and she agreed that I was right be displeased and that she would take care of it. Then I told her that I had prepared for the surgery and its aftermath with two months of pre-op physical therapy and was expecting a rigorous course of physical therapy to get me on my feet.

“I have so much energy, I could tackle a brick wall, and you give me “patty-cake” physical therapy?”

The doctor said that she would pair me up with a physical therapist who would meet my needs. At the end of the first day, she would evaluate my progress and either I would be given a walker to practice with on my own, or an aide who would walk with me though the corridors.

She was as good as her word. The intern came to see me to explain all the testing I had undergone. She also told me that the reason that she had not informed me of the x-ray was because she was at home when she ordered it.

“I would have had to make a special call to you to let you know.” “

So? This is my body, not yours.”

As far as physical therapy went, I was paired with a therapist whose intensity matched my own. I worked hard during the day. I was determined to get the walker.  I was not going to walked around by a minder. I was concentrating on my needs, absorbed in understanding how the exercises I was doing helped my knee and my ability to walk. I wasn't sure if my interpretation of Jesus message in today's healing story was what Jesus meant, but it had worked for me. I felt as if I had gotten everything straightened out and there was no stopping what I could accomplish.

Tuesday continued much the same way. I used my rest periods to analyze the exercises I had just done. Toward the end of the day, a man passed by me. He had a short vertical scar from the bottom to the top of the knee, like mine, but his scar continued up into his thigh – the oldest, most invasive knee surgery there was. I called out to him and asked if he had had knee surgery. He muttered “yes” and hurried on – well, as fast as his condition would let him hurry. It was clear he didn't want to talk.

The next day, I found myself sitting opposite the man at lunch. In my usual tactful and sensitive manner, I asked: “Would you tell me about your leg?” “Why would you want to know that?” he answered, clearly not pleased.  I told him that I wanted to understand why a surgeon would choose to do the most invasive surgery rather than the least.

He then told me about sudden excruciating pain in his knee and a whirlwind consultation with doctors, ending with a diagnosis of cancer on his knee, about 5” in length. By the time he was in surgery, about two days after the diagnosis, the cancer had grown to 14”, well up into his thigh.

“But they got it out cleanly. It's all gone. I don't need chemo or radiation. Am I a lucky guy, or what?”

I conceded that he was indeed lucky.

“And now I have to tell you something,” he said. “You are my inspiration.”

“What?” I was shocked – that was the last thing I expected.

“You've only been here a couple of days. You tackle your therapy with such passion and you've accomplished so much in such a short time. And it's not just me. Everyone watches you. Everyone wants to be like you.”

“All I want is my life back,” I said with as much humility I could muster.

“That's it.” he said. “That's what we all want. We want our lives back. And you're leading the way.” I don't mention this to boast. I don't usually get this kind of response. I usually annoy people. The truth is that something else was at work here. This gospel of empowerment was at work.

When I went back to PT, I started observing what was going on around me. Everyone was focused on the work ahead of them. Gone was the nursery school atmosphere.

On the next day, when I started working with a cane. I asked my therapist if I could ditch the wheelchair. When the therapist agreed, which meant that I'd be getting around with only the walker, the room erupted in applause. The mutual interest in one another broke out into the open and we all openly watched each other, made encouraging comments, thumbs up when milestones were passed. I saw that this Gospel of healing and empowerment is contagious.

But that's not all that happened.

When I came to the rehab center on the week-end, the meals for me and my roommate, Kathy – a terrific 96 year old, came to our room on trays. On Sunday evening, Kathy mentioned that we could take our meals in the dining room upstairs.

On the next day, Monday, when Kathy, and I began taking our meals in the dining room (which had 15 tables for 4), approximately 1/3 were fully occupied, more than 1/3 were partially occupied, and the rest were empty. By Friday, all the tables were occupied for all meals so that Kathy and I had to beat it up to the dining room early if we wanted to sit together. By the following Monday, there were up to 6 people sitting at tables for 4, with people borrowing chairs from the hall and the Physical Therapy room. The dining room had become the social nerve center for the Physical Therapy patients. It was as if someone had spiked the Wheaties – and I swear to God, it was not me. This Gospel of empowerment had taken on a life of its own.

All of the rehab patients came with their own individual challenges and physical needs. But before they could heal physically, they needed to heal spiritually. And when the healing broke out into the open, a whole new world was created.

There is much in this Gospel that we can learn as individuals, and as members of the community of Christ Church. If you look at the top ten stresses of life, you see immediately that there are events that we see as positive and those we see as negative: marriages vs. divorces; getting a job vs. losing a job. We can include in that things like mid-life crises; feeling like you're standing on the threshold of old age. All of these events, even the ones we consider happy, hold challenges for us and require us to change some aspect of our life. We have a choice: we can languish by the Sheep Gate or we can stand up, take up our mat, and walk.

There's  a little more to the sermon - but that related to the Church I was preaching to and not relevant to the issue of how older people are treated - in all different kinds of situations.  I entered the nursing home furious that I had been sent there rather than a dedicated rehab facility.  But along with all the other rehab population, we basically took over the joint.  Recalling that experience makes me truly angry at what we read going on today.

If you're older, do you get invitations to explore being "independent" at an Adult Community? If you're not that old, are your parents getting such invitations? If you or your parents accept one of these invitations, remember that this is a sales pitch. Come prepared with some hard questions. My first one would be, what happens if I fall down? Actually, that's diplomatic for me. My first question would be - When do I start losing my independence? But then, you see, I have absolutely no intention of going to an "Adult Living Community." That's why I suggest a more diplomatic question. If you ask it my way, they're going to be leery of taking you on.Ask what happens if you break a limb. I know of a case where a group of friends at an Adult Living Commuity were planning a big party. A few weeks before the event one of the friends broke their leg. The man was transferfed to the "Assisted Living" section for recuperation. When the party came around the staff refused to transport the gentleman to the party, nor would they allow anyone else to transport him. Remember the story about Emma?

You have to realize that when these outfits host their gatherings - they're out to sell you something. They will stay as far away as they can from anything willingly that would cause you to have reservations (they are not non-profit and they will use up a goodly portion of your savings for old age. Their policies beneit the Owners more than you.) If you're young enough, you may not believe me. I'm telling you that you need to feel the condescention of age descrimination just once and, if you have any self-respect, you won't put up with it.

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Tags: Words, aging, nursing homes, physical therapy, fighting stereotypes

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