Voices Of Loneliness For Many, Nursing Home 'is Just A Holding Tank

December 03, 1990|By Gary Gately

In the dining area, a sun-splashed room full of wooden tables, 18 elderly women sit looking at nothing in particular. Their limbs splayed as in a Picasso painting, some look as though they would tumble onto the floor but for the thick straps holding them in their wheelchairs.

Their heads, cocked at hard angles, rest against their chests, as if their neck muscles had ceased functioning long ago.

Nobody talks.

Down the hall, in one of the rooms with bare baby-blue walls and a linoleum floor, a man moans incessantly, a longing, desperate moan. A woman's scream echoes from another room.

Nobody seems alarmed or, for that matter, even takes notice.

Turn the corner, and the air reeks of human waste from a huge round plastic bin where the soiled diapers and linens end up.

And in room after room, the faces -- the wrinkled faces that give no hint of the dreams these people once knew -- seem utterly devoid of human expression.

It is an ordinary day in an ordinary nursing home, the Annapolis Convalescent Center.

You may have heard of it.

The 91-bed nursing home grabbed headlines and led local newscasts one day a few months ago after a 22-year-old nursing aide was charged with abusing 24 patients.

Few people paid much attention to the place or the people who live here before that isolated incident or since.

Which isn't surprising: Most people pay little attention to nursing homes or the people who live in them.

Most people hear about them only after investigators turn up horror stories of abuse and neglect.

But on this sunny fall day, a visit to the one-story brick building in a residential Annapolis neighborhood reveals no evidence of abuse or unsanitary conditions or even so much as a single complaint about cold food.

Instead, over and over again, you hear the voices of loneliness and despair. You see the people -- teachers, housewives, nurses, lawyers, laborers in another life -- suddenly without purpose.


One elderly woman borrows from Madison Avenue to describe the place where she whiles away her remaining days. "It's like the Roach Motel here: You check in, but you don't check out."

"It's just a holding tank here for so many people, a place they put you and forget about you," says another woman, 85. "Nobody wants to bother with them, so they put them here."

An 88-year-old woman whose head peeks out from a yellow bedspread that seems to swallow her tiny frame mumbles, "Home, home, home is where I want to be. Home is where I like best."

Her voice trails off, and she goes back to nibbling tiny forkfuls of meat smothered in thick, brown gravy.

A few rooms down, an 86-year-old seems out of place here, all dressed up in a pretty pink blouse and pink pants.

She speaks wistfully of the small pleasures she misses.

"I could still be cooking, baking, walking out there, doing everything," she says, tears streaming down her furrowed face. "You just get a little bit older, and they just put you on a shelf to do nothing. It's awful."

She says she's in perfect health, if a bit frail, but she couldn't find or pay for anyone to stay with her in her Annapolis home. Her doctor and family members, now scattered, didn't want her living alone.

More than anything, she says, she wants to be on the other side of these walls, in the sunshine, away from so many sick and confused people.

Then she speaks of one of the chief ironies of life in a place where 90 people, two to a room, live under one roof: "Let me tell you," she says, "this is agony. You're so alone, and you're so isolated, and take it from the horse's mouth, it's the truth."


Many others aren't so lucid. Dozens, in fact, no longer seem to know where they are or remember the slightest bit of detail of their lives.

Inside one of the rooms at the end of a corridor, an elderly woman with matted hair sits on her bed, her mouth gaping, her eyes wide with fear.

Staring at a tree outside the window, she clutches a visitor's arm and hand. She trembles, and her teeth begin chattering. She sees what no one else sees, and it terrifies her.

"But the schoolhouse, he's coming from the schoolhouse, right there. I don't want to go there. Then he won't help us. Help me! Help me!"

A nurse's aide walks in and smiles.

"Oh, don't mind her," the aide says. "She just gets like that sometimes, you know."

"Don't worry now. It'll be all right," the aide says to the old woman.

The woman's grip grows tighter. She does not want to let go of the visitor's hand.

Down the hall, another woman screams.

"Please, please, it hurts! Oh, please hurry! I can't stand this."

It's one of the tougher parts of the job for nurses' aides, changing patient's diapers.

"OK, OK," one of the aides says, "we're going to do this as fast as we can, so you won't hurt anymore."


It's her relaxation day, the 78-year-old woman explains.

She's finishing yet another crossword puzzle, a warm-up to the tougher one, the book of New York Times puzzles she plans to tackle next.

"I never get bored, never lonely," she says. "I have no chance to.

There's just too much to do here."

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