Swept Away: Pandemic Death in Nursing Homes

Medical science can explain the chain of vulnerability that led to waves of death that COVID 19 visited in nursing homes. Wrong place. Wrong time.  Luck is destiny.  But our hearts know a much different story.  Here’s mine.

In my clinical days as a PA in family medicine, I was a frequent visitor to the three nursing home our practice covered.  Being the “rookie” on the medical staff, the nursing home watch was immediately assigned to me with my colleagues making it no bones about how much they disliked making rounds in “those places.”

What my medical colleagues didn’t know was that I had advanced training in working with seniors from one of the most amazing individuals I’ve had the honor of knowing, my maternal grandmother Aagot Knutsen.  Her home, only a few blocks from my parent’s house was both a sanctuary and a work-study program from the domestic storm raging between my parent.  An immigrant who came to America in 1892 from Norway at age 18, alone with only a vague promise of work In Minneapolis, she exuded the quiet strength of survivor of adversity who refused to let it be an excuse for destructive choices and poor character.  Her modest home was filled with baking, gardening, sewing, cats and stories. Her kindness, patience, honesty and courage anchored me at a time where was always on the verge of my drifting into trouble.

This childhood experience with my grandmother framed my perspective and approach to my nursing home patients.  She taught me that life was especially difficult for older adults, a fact that deserves our attention and respect. She demonstrated great compassion for the loneliness that came with aging and how even small acts of kindness could ease its suffering. These were not just words. This was how she lived her life despite the losses and heartaches that she herself had to endure.

My time with her softened the stark world of nursing home care. At first, the degree of illness was unsettling as well as the cries and sounds of patients. But I was surprising comfortable wuith older patients and soon found my stride in making rounds.  While the majority of my time on rounds was spent sorting out medical problems, mapping out treatment plans, and following up on their implementation, I began to carve out time to direct my attention and respect towards finding out more about my patient’s s pre-nursing home lives.

Although a bit awkward at first, I soon became  more comfortable and relaxed inviting residents to share details of their lives with open-ended prompts like “tell me about where you grew up,’” or  “tell me about your family.” No everyone was open to my invitation to share information about their lives and told me to mind my own business. Fair enough. And of course there were patients whose health issues made dialogue impossible. But I found most patients enjoyed to the opportunity to talk about their lives. They wanted to tell stories about the people and events that had major impact the seventy, eighty, or ninety years of their journey.  And the telling to someone who interested, curious and remembered important details did just what my grandmother promised it would.  It eased the teller’s suffering.  They reached back in time.and returned with proof that their life mattered. And it did.  But something else occurred that I had not expected. Something my grandmother also promised would happen.

We don’t help older adults because we are better or without problems of our own.  We do it but because we suffer too, and  in the act of caring, our suffering is attenuated.   We get as much as we give. The wisdom of the patience and kindness my grandmother demonstrated towards me was her gift for the long run, and I was blessed to have received it in her kitchen filled with fresh smells of something just out of the oven, her ever present cat, and the gratitude in heart to be able to share this with me. 












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