A simple doorknob. We touch scores of them every day without even thinking. They open the world for us. We turn them easily and gain entrance to where we want to go. Without them we’re stuck, cut off from the world.
I’ve never paid much attention to doorknobs until becoming a caregiver for my Father. A few months ago, he was walking up the stairs toward the living room when he came to a closed door and stood there perplexed. He knew he wanted to go through the doorway, but he didn’t quite know how to accomplish that. He fumbled around, looking for something he could recognize, perhaps a switch or button. He moved his hands as if he were blind, borrowing support from his sense of touch, hoping he could feel his way through.
I stood behind my Father, hoping his hand would eventually land on the doorknob. He would turn that doorknob as he has thousands of times in the past 38 years he’s lived here. But he didn’t.
When it comes to Alzheimer’s, caregivers are encouraged to let their loved ones do for themselves as much as possible. If they can still lace up their shoes, let them have a go at it. If they can pull a shirt on over their head, let them take the lead. This enables them to hold onto as much independence as possible and reinforces their desire to be useful.
But there comes a point when you’re waiting for them to perform a task and they just can’t do it. You don’t want them to become frustrated, so you step in and lend a helping hand. That day on the stairs, I leaned over and opened the doorknob.
We open doors for our children when we enroll them in exceptional preschools that prepare them for kindergarten. We open doors for our youth when we drive them to lessons and auditions so they can live out their dreams. We also open doors when we help our teenagers with college or vocational school.
But we aren’t just door openers. We’re also gatekeepers. Just as it is our role to help our loved ones thrive and be all they were destined to be, it is also our responsibility to prevent and guard against those places that could harm them or crush their spirit.
Last Friday, I drove to a facility in Stone Mountain to see if it would be a good fit for my Dad so Mom and I could have a few days break. Since they had a memory care unit, the entrance was zealously guarded to keep their patients from bolting out the door. The door was locked at all times and a code was required to enter.
By nature, many nursing homes are depressing. They’re called homes, yet there nothing about them feels like home. They are more like hospitals, with cold, sterile hallways, nursing stations and residents passing the time in wheelchairs or napping in their rooms.
The Admissions Coordinator led me down the hall, and while he was very polite, he spent most of his time greeting staff members and residents. He didn’t tell me anything about how many patients they had, their schedule, their dining hall or how many nurses and staff they employed. I could’ve asked these questions and many more, but I didn’t. He was telling me a lot by not telling me anything.
We walked to the end of the hall, where he punched in another code to access the memory care unit. I met the nurse while most of the residents were gathered near the TV, waiting on their lunch. I never found out where or what they ate.
At the end of the tour, the Admissions Coordinator showed me a room with two beds, two dressers, a TV and an adjacent bathroom. My empty college dorm room was cozier.
I knew just a few minutes after entering the facility that this was not the place for Dad. I had asked God to either give me peace if this was a good fit, or a red flag if it wasn’t. Red flags popped up all over.
I drove away asking God to remove any sadness or depression I may have picked up there that had attached itself to me. And He did. As soon as I prayed that prayer, the depression lifted.
One thing that did stick with me was the conviction that we must do better for our elderly. The entire system needs to be overhauled and better regulated to protect our aging population. Our small business owners, teachers, housewives, veterans and blue-collar workers of today are the residents of these facilities tomorrow.
I don’t have the answers. But I’m willing to come to the table to brainstorm and find solutions. We turn on our TVs and watch dozens of residential homes get total design makeovers. Why can’t we do that to nursing homes? We have smart phones, smart TVs, smart washers and dryers, smart vacuum cleaners and smart alarm systems. Why can’t local businesses donate smart technology to assisted living facilities in their communities to revolutionize elder care? Why can’t we equip our nursing homes and rehabilitation centers with chapels and libraries? Why can’t we build our own Dementia Villages like they built in the Netherlands, where people aren’t sequestered to a facility but rather, a facility is designed to meet the needs of people with dementia?
If we provide scholarships for students to attend the school of their choice, why can’t we offer need-based scholarships to people with dementia so they can reside in Dementia Villages that truly feel like home? We offer the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, where teachers can have up to $17,500 of their student loans forgiven if they teach for five complete and consecutive years in a low-income school. Why can’t we offer a similar program for nurses, administrators and geriatric specialists who work in nursing homes or assisted living facilities? Why can’t all elder care employees who work with dementia patients be required to take the virtual dementia tour?
Why can’t we offer incentives and tax breaks to personal care homes and assisted living communities who have no regulatory citations and meet strict requirements so they can hire quality staff and pay better wages? Gateway Church in Dallas strategically planted churches on four Texas prison campuses, resulting in lower recidivism rates and prisoners who finally have purpose. Why can’t we start churches in nursing homes?
One thing is clear. Just like my Father isn’t always able to find doorknobs and must rely on someone to open doors for him, we must open doors for our elderly population. And be their gatekeepers.