On this particular day I had gotten excited about a new idea. A resident at our facility who was a seamstress for a living was beginning to lose her passion for crocheting. She slept more often and rarely felt like interacting with anyone. I was watching Project Runway at home one night and felt that this might give her the pep she needed. I remembered she had watched an old industrial documentary on the history of fashion, so I thought she would think that Project Runway would be a hoot. I went to her room that following morning to discuss it with her. She showed interest at the idea, so I smugly trotted down to the Activities department to inform them to find a season of PR on Net Flix for our resident. I was met by Erika from Activities, who informed me that I had customers. She wrinkled her nose and changed “customers” to “clients” and seemed happy with that label instead.
There were three of them. A woman in her late forties and her brother and sister who were in their 30s. They all wore the familiar pinched expressions of the truly stressed out and frightened. The older of the three, Sarah, extended her hand, cool and professional, and introduced herself and her siblings. She was clearly in charge and her siblings seemed perfectly fine with her in that role. I had trouble shaking her hand because I was juggling a cup of Green Tea and my morning snack of a hardboiled egg. I repeated their names and promptly forgot the siblings. Sarah was the one that seemed to require all the attention so I focused on her. We gathered in my office to discuss the situation that brought them to our facility. Their mother was dying of leukemia and they were looking for us as a hospice house. Since our facility did not offer rehab we were taking more and more hospice cases. One of the hospice organizations that we have a relationship with had recommended us. I was filling out an Inquiry form for our records and asked Sarah for her phone number. She paused. “ May we just see a room?” I took a little mental breath. This was not a good sign. She didn’t trust me. I tried to shake off the irritation but it remained. “ It’s just a formality - for this form...I won’t be contacting you unless you decide to proceed with admitting your mother.” She looked unmoved and repeated that they would like to see a room. I looked down at the paper and looked back at her with quite possibly the most insincere smile one could do. “Of course.” I said with the vaguest hint of dismissiveness. Where was this coming from? This was not my usual course of action. I usually recognized the grieving and the pain and tried to ameliorate it. Was it the two cups of coffee I had that morning? It wasn’t so long ago that a similar situation had occurred and I all but hugged the daughter within five minutes of knowing her!
Things went from bad to worse. Sarah realized she had caught me off guard and went in for the kill. I started to boast about our amazing activities program ( which it really is) and realized what a stupid gaff that was. The woman was going to be in her bed dying! She wouldn’t have interest in indoor “lawn” bowling or a sing-a-long. What was I thinking?? Sarah was clear it was a hospice case, but I continually began to explain how an elder could actually live and grow and change at our facility. I caught myself again and simply took them to the room. Sarah became a battering ram of questions and the unthinkable happened.
She made me nervous.
My voice haltingly explained the amenities to the room. She asked about Staff to Resident ratio and since it continually evolves due to the population of the facility, I explained we staff as needed. She wanted numbers. I didn’t do numbers. She asked about the cost of the room and good lord..I forgot the cost of the room! A price I had been quoting for nearly a year, everyday, 6 times a day, flew out of my head. I was appalled at my stupidity. The whole thing felt remarkably like being on stage and feeling completely unprepared. I used to do this thing where I was delivering lines to another actor on stage and then I would “say” the next line in my head and not “hear” what the other actor was saying. Quite often I would simply, “go up”. This is the term used when an actor forgets his or her lines. It took a while before I learned that one had to listen to the actor on stage and “be in the moment” instead of thinking ahead of what I had to do. Sure enough...that’s exactly what was happening here.
I went back to the office bewildered at how such a simple tour had gone downhill. I had been in this situation dozens of times and never felt so rattled as this. I could barely hand her the brochures without my hand shaking. She scrutinized the price I had forgotten. “That’s not what is on your website.” she blazed at me. Now wait just a goddam minute. I changed that price myself. I knew I had done it. “Really?? Would you mind just waiting a minute? May I check that while you are here?” I sat at my desk and brought up the website. It matched what was written on the price list. She paused. I felt slightly empowered, but more importantly I figured out what was going on. I watched her face begin to droop with fatigue. She was fighting for her mother. She wanted the absolute best situation for her so she could feel good about bringing her here. She wanted to do right by her. I began to feel sorry for whomever had to deal with me as I tried to find a nice place for my mother to die. It was brief but Sarah and I connected for a second. She told me very softly, “ It’s hard ....ya know?” The grief was a fresh sharp bleeding scrape and quite a ways from being ready to heal. I was in the moment. I reached up and squeezed her hand quickly, not too familiar and said, “ I know” She smiled sadly, “ You have a beautiful facility.” I thanked her and she gathered her mute mournful siblings and went in search of the perfect place for her mother to die. I doubted that she would find it.