Watching The News In A Nursing Home


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

I have written before about my mother’s struggles with dementia, which has involved struggles for the rest of us in the family as well. It appears that things were going much too smoothly so a stroke was added to her situation.

It has been a little over three weeks since Mom’s stroke and she has recovered tolerably well, with the biggest exception being some significant mobility limitations to her right side.

There are many bad combinations in life. As adolescents, my best friend Dan and I decided that it would be a good idea to make pickle sundaes. It was everything you would expect it to be (or not be). A dill pickle covered with chocolate syrup, whipped cream and a cherry is a bad combination, no two ways about it. You never know until you actually try, right? For what its worth, we never did it again.

Another really bad combination is a stroke and dementia. Mom has had a constant struggle with this pairing. The first week was truly terrible with her constant re-discovery of the inability to use her right arm or leg and her confusion over why this was happening. “Mom, you had a stroke on Tuesday” was the explanation that was used something like 279 times. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” was the question asked in reply many of those times. It was like the movie Groundhog Day, but without any of the funny parts.

Therapy has helped, although for really effective therapy you need a patient who understands that there is some reason for therapy. Wouldn’t you rebel if some stranger tried making you do some stupid, elemental task that you have done a million times in your life and have absolutely no difficulty doing now? Unfortunately that is how Mom sees it and there is as much time spent arguing with therapists as there is actual, you know, therapy.

She is now back in her memory care setting and it was there that I went to visit one weekday evening after work. She had a bit of an upset stomach that day and the staff had gotten her into a recliner in the TV room with some blankets to keep her warm. I pulled up a chair for our visit.

Conversations are a little tough. She has no memory of anything that has gone on there, so it does no good to ask “so how was your day?” I can tell her things going on in my life but there isn’t really much going on in my life right now beyond her situation, so that isn’t really a good conversation topic either. Fortunately the television news was on.

Watching the news in a dementia facility is a new experience for me. There is one lady who is always on the move. As soon as I sat down she walked right up to me and started patting my shoulder and running her hand across my cheek. It was a little disconcerting (I am not a high-touch kind of guy) but I smiled and said hello. That seemed to be enough and she moved on.

There was an old gent in a wheelchair who seemed to be the King of the TV Remote. After awhile he got dissatisfied with the news program we had been watching and began searching for some other suitable channel. (Why does the radio have stations while the television has channels?) He eventually settled on – another news program. I imagined him to be one of those guys who used to sit in his favorite chair at home and follow the news with serious zeal. My father was like that. Fortunately the King of the TV Remote spent his time staring intently at the screen and not arguing with the news broadcasters – as I have been known to do on rare occasion.

The staff members were helping others into the room and I began to get a sense of life’s rhythms there. Many folks were quite content to sit and watch whatever was on, some were dozing and others were walking in and out. But there seemed to be something about a community together that drew folks in. I am fairly introverted and like my alone time, but many are not like that and crave company, and the TV room was that communal place.

And so we sat, watching the news, sharing an occasional comment and just sitting there spending time together. My mind flits here and there to things I could be doing in order to notch some accomplishment back home. My house is screaming at me about the many projects that are either unfinished or not yet begun. I know, however, that just being present is something of value as well, and at the moment that value is quite high.

A friend recently lost his father and has been sharing some of the things he misses, such as the sound of his dad’s voice. I am still able to hear my mother’s voice although it is much weaker now than it once was. What that voice says has changed too – the purposeful declarations and opinions are mostly gone now, replaced by things like “my hands are cold” or “she is very nice – does her pink shirt mean something?” And discussions about the TV news were different as well. There was nothing about the issues surrounding the recent school shooting. Instead we discussed Alex Trebek. “What’s that about Alex Trebek?” she asked after his picture appeared onscreen. My response was “They haven’t told us yet – they keep telling us that something about Alex Trebek is coming up but then they go to commercials.”

Twenty years ago I was not much of a football fan but my father loved watching the games on TV. I would love the chance now to watch a game with him or to comment on one of the news shows he used to follow in the years before he died. Today I still have the opportunity so sit with my mother and answer questions about Alex Trebek after I go looking for another blanket to help her get warmer. For now I miss the way things used to be. But some day I will miss this too.

14 thoughts on “Watching The News In A Nursing Home

  1. The angst and turmoil all this is giving you is hard to comprehend for someone who hasn’t been there. My mother just experienced similar with my stroke victim grandmother but the setting and my grandmother’s condition were entirely different.

    May this journey be as smooth sailing as possible.


    • Thanks, Jason. The really hard parts are like the day after this visit when I got a call because she was upset and crying because nobody comes to see her. The hurt feelings are very real but there is nothing you can do but visit again later.


  2. Great post. Life has seasons, and some seasons are crappy. One of my co-workers is dealing with his mothers dementia, she fell and broke her hip, then got a hip replacement. Therapy was pretty much useless as you describe above so now she sits in a wheelchair all day, remembering very little.

    At the other end of the spectrum my moms mind is as sharp as ever, but her body will fail her. Strange how things go.


    • I know that you are not having an easy time with your mother too, just different challenges. Not to get all morbid but I have lately been coming around to an appreciation for the massive fatal heart attack or whatever that brings things to a swift and decisive end. But none of us gets to decide, which is probably for the best.


  3. Oh, JP … I’m so sorry to read about this latest development. I hope someone will explain someday why life has to be so unfair! (As if having dementia weren’t terrible enough on its own.) It sounds like you’re bringing a great sense of perspective to the situation, though, by doing your best to adapt to things as they areย โ€” and also by reminding yourself that it won’t be this way forever. You are wise to realize that one day you will miss your mom, and to therefore make the most of the time you do have. I’m trying to do the same in my own life. My best to you as you navigate this difficult time.


  4. (WordPress ate this comment earlier so I will try again – apologies if this becomes a duplicate)

    JP, I am sorry to hear about your motherโ€™s struggles. It is a very difficult and sadly familiar trial for many families.

    My father began his long slow mental descent when he was the same age I am now, and my greatest fear is following in his footsteps and inadvertently creating a sense of helplessness and sadness in the lives of my loved ones. It became apparent to us what was happening when in the late 1980s he left my NYC apartment and could not find the Queens Midtown tunnel to go back home, a route he had driven thousands of times over his life of working in Manhattan and living on Long Island.

    His mother, my grandmother, had the same problem. In my family it appears to be an issue that is genetic in nature.

    In my desire to know more about this, I was led to a 2002 book that documents the Nun Study. This on-going study, started in 1986. follows 678 elderly nuns from their earliest writings to their death and the subsequent analysis of their voluntarily donated brain tissues. (

    The study itself is somewhat dated now, but its findings seem to maintain their currency due to the uniquely similar life conditions of the nuns as study subjects and their willingness to donate their brains after death. One finding that I have remembered from this book is that the brain tissue plaque often thought to be the cause of this disease was also found in the brains of subjects who were very active, alert, and on top of their game to the very end.

    There are still no real answers to this great sadness, but there are some interesting theories.


    • Thanks for the supportive words, RL. We are in uncharted territory because I’m not sure any of my mother’s elders lived this long and the only one who had dementia (an aunt of hers) declined and died blessedly quickly. We are not dealing with a strict Alzheimer’s so the symptoms are a little different. I guess more would have had this sort of thing had they lived beyond the heart attacks.

      If nothing else this stiffens my resolve to eat more bacon and ice cream. ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. Hi Jim,

    I’ve been reading your posts about your mother’s condition.My sincerest sympathies, these are not easy times. My mother passed six years ago, as of this month. But we lost her a lot longer before that. About three years before her passing, we put in her in “memory care” (I love euphemisms), where she sat like a person waiting for a train for the majority of her time there. Both of my brothers who lived nearby saw her daily or almost daily. I would only make the five hour drive to Cleveland every other weekend and so saw her deterioration at a more noticeable pace than they did. I had a particularly rough time, as it seemed like my mother was stuck in 1958 permanently, and so didn’t remember me as her son (I was born in 1962).

    I would sit with her for hours (waiting for that damned train), like two strangers in a waiting room, not talking too much. Oddly, I found that when the news came on it was a relief of sorts for me. I couldn’t really focus on whatever movie or show was on, but the news gave me something I could sink my teeth into. It was like the home was an alternate reality world, of swirling, mixed memories, not just of my own family but all of the families of the people housed there. The news was a tether back to the “real world”, in many regards.

    I hope that your experience will be better than mine and that you and your family finds peace.


    • Thanks George. Sorry to hear of the troubles that your mother went through. There are times when I would almost welcome a vacant waiting-for-a-train experience, like when I get the calls about how she gets disoriented and combative at night. I sometimes wonder what will happen with younger generations – those folks who eat organic, run every day and maintain their perfect health. Will their bodies outlive their minds as with our mothers? I would rather not go that route, personally.


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