When I peeked out the door I didn’t see my grandfather. Well, actually he was my grandfather but he seemed like a different person. He was impersonally bedridden, in an aseptic room with a strong smell of bleach and betadine. There was nothing in that room to remind him that he once had a life outside, except for a photograph on the nightstand and some clothes in the closet. The nursing home was fine, its facilities were modern, functional, it was close to the hospital; the nurses treated him well, they were attentive and competent – my grandfather needed specific care – but that place gave me goosebumps. At some point during his stay there, after hours and hours staring at the ceiling, he stopped remembering our names; I guess he stopped remembering himself before.
Whenever I pass in front of a nursing home, that feeling that is difficult to describe returns to me, between sadness and discomfort. Discomfort from the absolute comfort of being outside, of course. Mariano Turégano, a resident of a nursing home in San Sebastian de los Reyes (Madrid), gave voice to discomfort and indignity this week during a municipal plenary session. He said that in his residence there is a lack of personnel and that the workers have “unfortunate conditions”, with “miserable salaries”. He also told how the food they are served is “despicable”, how they spend hours without eating and, most importantly, without drinking, causing serious cases of dehydration (a study carried out in the Île-de-France determined that excess deaths in residences in the Paris region was due more to thirst than covid). He described how they lose their right to have something like privacy. “We have worked hard, you should know because today you enjoy privileges that we fight for, not for us, but for you. This cannot be achieved by looking the other way. It is unusual that we are here today asking to live with dignity,” he said.
That was it, dignity. That is the word that escaped me during visits to my grandfather. Lost dignity. The current model of residences, with that hospitable lighting, without warmth, without their own spaces, with elderly people who seem to be parked in common rooms looking at a TV or a wall, with an overwhelmed staff, who rush in and out of the rooms like if it were a mechanical and chain work, it reduces –if not makes it impossible- the option to offer a decent service with attention focused on the needs of each one. Because Mariano doesn’t need the same things as Alfredo, or Mari Angeles, or my grandfather at the time. They do not have the same tastes nor have they had the same life. Poor care robs many elderly people of their dignity, but it also breaks their personal wills, nullified by uniformity.
Nursing homes should be a home, rather than a kind of hospital – nobody wants to live in a hospital – but today most are neither one thing nor the other.