Joe sat against the wall of the third floor lobby of the Southside Senior Center, silently dissecting the behavior of the trio clustered in the corner. There his friend Bernard “Sarge” Sargent was being spoiled by his granddaughter and daughter. The women were on their bi-weekly “Saturday picnic” visit, although it had been awhile since they had actually gone outside with him. Instead, they had brought him a fine lunch of turkey on croissant, with not-quite-homemade cream of chicken soup from the upscale deli about a mile from the center. Sarge sat wide eyed, brows furrowed, as the women set up their feast. To an untrained eye, it appeared that Sarge was either frightened, or had little idea what was going on. Joe knew differently.
Sarge deserved a bit of spoiling, Sarge did. That distant, wide-eyed look was all that was left of excitement, dimmed by the ravages of dementia on Sarge’s once razor-sharp mind. Sarge knew whom the two women with him were, today, and he even remembered where he was this time. He told his favorite granddaughter that he was thrilled she had showed after having been gone these many years.
In truth, Cathy had been gone only two weeks, but Sarge’s grasp of time had gone from dim to black in recent months. He generally had no idea what time, day, or even year it was. Fortunately, the routine of his life made needing to know time irrelevant. When you do the same thing, every day, all the time, it little matters what time it is.
Cathy’s mother, Debra, sat with her back to Joe, her usual place, and ate quietly. She had resigned herself to having lost her dad years ago, and mostly showed up for Cathy’s sake, and out a sense of obligation. Cathy, on the other hand, had never given up. She looked constantly at her grandfather, seemingly distressed by his condition. Sarge held the spoon, and gingerly held it to his lips, slurping softly. He had begun listing to the right ever so slowly, his limp muscles no longer capable of holding his thin frame erect. Most of the soup spilled onto his shirt, as he had made no adjustment for his lack of verticality, and the spoon emptied to the right of his mouth.
“Mom, straighten him up please, he’s leaning over,” Cathy ordered softly. Joe noticed Cathy’s mom didn’t seem quite as sharp as she used to, and Cathy seemed to have taken charge long ago. Debra looked up from her sandwich, and immediately stood up and propped her father up in his chair, using his blanket to support his lower back. She made him a bib out of the brown paper napkin, and tucked it neatly under his chin. Her movements were practiced, precise, and silent.
“Thank you Deb,” Sarge acknowledged, still wide eyed.
“You’re welcome, dad.”
From across the room, Joe smiled at the mention of the woman’s name. It meant there was still some Sarge at home. Some days, the lights were on but no one was home. Lately, even the lights didn’t seem to be on much.
Sarge put the spoon to his lips once again, but once again he had leaned over to the right. The movement seemed to be on purpose this time, as if an off-center view of the world felt right to him. This trip, the soup made it to his lips, but Sarge neglected to close his lower lip in time, and the soup ran back out into the bowl, dripping in a long line like a string of drool.
Wordlessly, Cathy took the spoon from him, and fed him first his soup, then with equal patience, bits of his sandwich. Simultaneously, she ate her own lunch, never taking her eyes from her granddad, using his slow chewing as an opportunity to feed herself. Her mom simply took up the middle seat, dutifully, never looking up. Cathy glanced at her mom, no look of judgment visible on her face. Joe, watching, sighed despite himself, and wondered how long it would be before Debra was being fed. He wondered if Cathy’s busy daughter would tear herself away from chasing her career to help. Dementia was indeed a family curse.
To Joe, Sarge looked disarmingly like a giant baby, being spoon-fed by his new mother, who was weary from long days and the inevitable diaper change that would follow. The scene wasn’t emotional, there were no theatrics, just three actors playing their parts in a play that had been repeated for generations. It was quiet, serious, and beautiful in a way that almost made Joe’s weary eyes misty. He wondered how anyone could even manage that little bit of warmth in a place like the Senior Center.
The lobby was a surprisingly cold place, more hospital wing than home. The yellowed linoleum floor gave the room a sickly ambiance. Some administrator had long ago decided the once-white flooring would be in the seniors’ best interest, since the floor would most effectively bounce the harsh, unfiltered fluorescent lighting back to the residents. It did, but now, aged, made most of them seem jaundiced. In the corner immediately to Joe’s right, was a small lounge area, consisting of two loveseats and an arm chair, all a handsome red and blue striped pattern. They matched absolutely nothing. Close by sat a coffee table with reading material the residents had mostly memorized, stacked neatly. There was a display case that held mementos of the nursing center, but little of the residents who lived there. The air was stale, with an ever-so-faint smell of urine from the far end of the hallway.
They were on the third floor in the D wing, where those residents who needed constant monitoring or serious medical care lived out their lives. This was a “graduated living” facility, where the residents started out in their own apartments, then gradually moved to the equivalent of dormitories, and eventually, hospital beds or the intensive care unit. As such places go, this was a relatively nice one, clean and certainly bright. When he got away with it, Joe would sit in his sunglasses in silent protest of the glaring lights. Protests in D wing were silent by definition. The nurses and the orderlies took no backtalk from the residents. Indeed, most of the orderlies seemed to think their jobs were the equivalent of prison guards rather than caretakers. The nurses were well-trained and well-equipped to do their jobs. But they were also overworked, underpaid, overtired, and oftentimes in pain from lifting, pulling, and cajoling elderly patients who couldn’t care for themselves.
Down the long corridor, the unmistakable sound of weeping could be heard. That is, it could have been heard if there had been anyone to listen. But this was meal time, and the nurses were busy taking food and meds to the bed-ridden. The third floor orderlies who weren’t helping the nurses were taking unscheduled smoke breaks. They had listened to just about enough crying and were drowning from the tears they had no tools to stop.
The residents of D wing, the Disappearing Wing, the orderlies called it, had once been productive members of society. Rumor had it that the ward held at least one former Fortune 500 CEO, a beauty queen from the late 1940s, and the former Mayor of Tupelo, Mississippi. They were disappearing, bit by bit, their brain cells dying or disconnecting from their neural networks one at a time. Some of the residents acted like children, if they acted at all. They were not children, though. They were grown, and that made things worse. If children could be abused by their parents, then so could an adult in a filthy diaper in the midst of an emotional meltdown. There was no one to blame for the residents’ predicament, and that was the problem. There was never anyone to blame, or anyone to bear the responsibility for making the situation better. This was not a charitable institution, the Southside Senior Care Center. That made it a business, and a business is supposed to make money.
The nurses were just trying to make the ones whom could be helped more comfortable. To be fair, most of the orderlies were too. Most, but not all. No one would ever know it was the former Mayor of Tupelo, all shuddering two hundred fifty pounds of him, who was weeping like a baby because he had just been slapped for soiling his fresh diaper for the third time. No one would care, and no one would call it abuse. Abuse requires a witness. This was just “discipline.” The female orderly who slapped him simply was “raising her old people” the way her parents had raised her.
Joe, had he been present, would have been shocked, and angry. Even at his advanced age, Joe was a dangerous man when angered. He had considered this particular orderly a friend, a confidant. Tonight, she was just an enforcer.
Mr. Mayor quieted down, and didn’t soil himself a fourth time. Of course, it was mostly because his bodily functions had simply run out of fuel. Still, the orderly tidied the room, convinced of a job well done.
As she tidied the room, she chided Mr. Mayor, gesturing, and muttering. “Why you have to be this way? Is it so damn hard not to poop yourself? You a grown-ass man. My daddy didn’t even know my name and he ain’t poop hisself.” The orderly continued to rant, as Mr. Mayor lay softly whimpering. ” And I’m supposed to keep liftin’ your fat ass up and wipe your smelly shit?” she asked. “Why ain’t your damn daughter here doing this crap? I ain’t axe fa’ this ish.”
There were no answers. Mr. Mayor was there, but as with many of the residents, there was no longer anyone at home. He had checked out a long time ago.
Or, rather, he had checked in to different accommodations.