Retirement centers are a bizarre thing. [North] Americans, and how we treat our elderly for that matter is generally a bizarre thing, or so I used to think. When people grow old in traditional villages in Vietnam, for instance, family and friends care for them at home until their dying days. In the states, the elderly are more typically sent to nursing homes — the kind of stark contrast that can come off as unfeeling, even cruel.
But what is one to do when say, your Grandmother starts to show tall tale signs of dementia and everyone in the family is either working full-time or going to school? I remember the first time my family had the conversation to move sweet Granny Mac in to a nursery home. I was 17, it was 2 AM in the morning, summertime, and I had received a phone call from the San Diego Police Dept. (I should mention we lived in Westminster at the time, not exactly a stone's throw away from the good ol' SD). My heart was racing, trying desperately to think of what crime they could possibly be pinning on me. 'Is this Christina Craig?' [long pause] I was the total goody two shoes type. This phone call didn't make sense. Did I jaywalk one vacation many years ago and had the CIA finally tracked me down? Finally I managed to reply with a 'Errmm yeah.. this is Christina... How can I help you?' There was another long pause (on their end this time around) then, 'Yeah okay. Um Miss Craig, are you by chance missing a Grandmother?' To which I ran to my Grandmother's room and found myself coming to the same conclusion — indeed, I was missing a Grandma. Apparently, as they would later piece together, she had cashed out her latest retirement check, hopped on the nearest Greyhound, then rode it all the way down to the south county casinos. Everyone else had gone home for the evening and she was the last person there- confused as to why she was where she was, how she had gotten there, and what's worse, grossly addicted to gambling.
Two weeks later my parents placed her in a retirement home, and that was that. I'm half Vietnamese, and that more Eastern traditional part of me was heartbroken. It just felt wrong. Like we had abandoned her. After everything she had been through — surviving the Vietnam War, traveling to America and sacrificing all that she knew to give my mom a better life... and what had we done to show for recognition and thanks? Shipped off Granny Mac to a place unfamiliar to her surrounded by unfamiliar people. Her basic needs were being taken care of, but still. The guilt of her living situation weighed heavy on my conscience, and the feeling of not knowing how best to approach communicating with my grandmother when I did visit was overwhelming.
While modernization has brought many benefits to the elderly — most notably improved health and longer life spans — it has also has led to a breakdown of traditions. The truth of the matter is, however, those of us in modern cultures sometimes must face cruel choices of our own. And it's not because we don't care, but because ironically, we do. Granny Mac might not be living with us the way she would be in Vietnam, but living in the States has pushed for a sense of independence, the go getter- work oriented mentality and ultimately lifestyle, which means long work days and not always being able to be around to care for our elders the way they deserve to be or need to, for that matter. Granny Mac needed a caretaker so that the next surprise call I got would not be from the police dept. of Tahiti, and we couldn't be there to provide that for her.
Still, the nursery home experience doesn't HAVE to feel like an isolated prison for your elderly loved ones, and there's no need for you to feel like you're making a conjugal visit when you see them. I've educated myself on Dimentia over the years and have learned enough to know that although my grandmother's memory is fading, the feelings she experiences through it all are still as real and tangible as they were before the disease began to affect her. That being said, communication can be broken down to its most rudimentary form: it becomes less about the aspects that her dementia is affecting- thoughts and actions, and more so about the part that isn't: her feelings.
Spending time with my grandmother isn't always easy. On bad days, her dementia takes over and she becomes paranoid of everything and every one, including myself. On those days I'm a French spy and I'm trying to extort information from her about the old beauty shop she once owned, so she'll frown at me, cross her hands, refuse to speak, and tell me to go away. On good days she sometimes recognizes me, but mostly she doesn't. Still, she shakes my hand, tells me that I'm a nice woman with good energy, and that she's glad to have met me. She smiles, we laugh, and if she's feeling in a particularly good mood that morning will even try on the latest pair of sunnies or lip balm I've brought along. Sort of a United States of Tara meets Notebook experience; I'm never quite sure what to expect, or who. I know now through my visits though that certain things will trigger positive emotions, and it has helped tenfold in terms of creating both a better retirement home experience for her and visiting experience for me. She was once a beautician in Vietnam and studied in France, so things like fashion accessories instantly help lift her spirits. However, my favorite remedy for helping my grandmother by far has been music. On my most recent visit I spotifyed as many traditional Vietnamese tracks as I could find and streamed it for her, and the experience was not unlike that video that went viral on the topic of music therapy for alzheimer's disease. It turns out the Emos from high school had it right all along: MUSIC IS LIFE. MUSIC IS EVERYTHING. And on that note I'll leave you to the clip xx