Sadly, my father-in-law had to move to a nursing home over the summer, and that move has led to me spend a lot of time with the elderly lately.
It is possible that there is no place on the planet that upsets me more than the nursing home, and if there is, luckily I haven’t been there yet. Because every time I visit, I end up in the bathroom, sobbing uncontrollably.
I wish this wasn’t the case—I wish I had the ability to move my father-in-law into our house, the money to hire him round-the-clock care. Or the energy to stay up twenty-four hours a day taking care of him—feeding him, washing him, nursing him.
Even more, I wish he could still walk. Or speak. Or go to the bathroom by himself.
But these things are not meant to be.
One of the few things my father-in-law can still do is eat. No, he can’t always feed himself, and he can’t ever swallow normal-sized chunks of food. But he can get down small pieces of real food—not pureed food but real food—and that seems to be a bit of a blessing during this time of not being able to do so much.
This is true of almost everyone I’ve met in the home—Bootsie the lost, Anthony the screamer, Hammond the reminiscer, Raymon the talker—all of them can still eat. Even if they can’t all feed themselves.
It’s possible there are people there who are worse off—people who are fed through tubes—but they don’t let me see those people, they don’t roll them down to the dining room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The people I do meet make that trek three times a day—nearly all of them in wheelchairs, but a few of them still tottering through the halls, as unsteady as newborn colts.
The food at the home is decent—I’ve had it once, and I’ll have it again, probably at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s certainly nothing I would refuse to eat, and I’m glad my father-in-law has that consistency in his life.
But what disturbs me is that some of the residents don’t want to eat. Not because they’re not hungry or depressed, but because they’re watching their weight.
Let me repeat that . . . they’re watching their weight.
Yes, even in the nursing home, even at seventy and eighty and ninety, people worry about their waistlines.
In fact, it’s something that Raymon (the talker) mentions all the time. He’s lived in the home for a while—possibly more than a year now—and he’s obsessed with the fact that he’s gained a few pounds. Raymon sits in a wheelchair all day long—watching television, sleeping, or talking—so I imagine he’s gained weight because of his lack of activity. But rather than address that change, Raymon is cutting back on his daily calories, doing his best to avoid dessert and leave food on his plate whenever he can.
Keep in mind that in the nursing home every single calorie is accounted for. When your food arrives, it comes with a small sheet of paper that lists everything on your tray and the corresponding numbers for each item in order to avoid accidentally increasing someone’s blood pressure or insulin. And nobody gets seconds or more than they should. It is literally impossible to overeat at the nursing home. They just don’t let you do it.
But Raymon is still obsessed with what he eats. He tells me about it every time I see him.
“I’ve got to start cutting back,” he says, and I nod.
“I hear you, Raymon,” I say because it seems cruel to disagree with a man who has almost nothing left besides his opinions.
Nevertheless, in my gut I feel horror—Raymon is almost eighty, and he’s still worried about his weight? It makes me wonder if there will ever be a day when he will stop worrying about maintaining his figure.
I know other people like this. My mom and my mother-in-law are two examples. They’ve both been on and off diets their whole lives, and it’s hard to imagine a time when they will ever give up trying to lose weight. I’ve encouraged them many times to accept themselves the way they are, but my comments are always met with skepticism and disbelief.
Accept myself the way I am? they seem to be saying. Why on earth would I do that?
So I let them count their calories, skip their desserts, and feel guilty when they snack. But I can’t help but wonder—will they ever let it go? Will they ever let themselves eat what they want and stop caring about getting back that twenty-inch waist or fitting into that size six dress? Will they ever decide that it doesn’t matter what they look like in their bathing suit? Will they ever look in the mirror and decide they like what they see?