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Telling the stories of nursing home residents

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By The Staff

Nursing home residents have held a special place in my heart since my grandmother passed away in a long-term care facility three years ago.

I was one of her primary caretakers before she died, visiting her every morning at the Cherry Hills Health Care Center in Englewood. I made sure she was out of bed and properly dressed for breakfast at a reasonable time. I brushed her hair, dressed her in respectable clothes, powdered rouge on her pale cheeks and carefully dabbed lipstick on her thin lips to brighten her face and spirit. She was 92 and confined to a wheelchair, but she still wanted to look like a lady. It helped her maintain pride as she struggled with the heartbreaking reality that she would never leave the nursing home.

I saw that same sense of pride in Irene Wright, a vibrant 82-year-old woman whom I recently interviewed at the Life Care Center nursing home in South Jeffco.

When I arrived, Wright was patiently waiting for me in the lobby, dressed in a lovely black-and-white-striped sweater, black slacks and beautiful silver-ball earrings. She also wore light-pink rouge and lipstick to match. Her nails were neatly manicured, and her short gray hair was curled in a fashionable style.

She was born on Nov. 8, 1926, making her a Scorpio under the astrological sun.

"I had red hair all my life, and a red-haired Scorpio woman — everyone always said — was someone to contend with," Wright said. "Hot dog, I liked that a lot. That was fun."

I knew instantly that she was not one of those nursing home residents that lacked visitors from family and friends — a sad reality that compelled me to start this column for Evergreen Newspapers.

When my grandmother was confined to a long-term care facility, I couldn't help but notice that several of the residents never received cards from friends or family. Many sat in front of their televisions, interacting only with medical personnel and other residents. That's why I started the Forget Me Not foundation in late 2006, through which a group of volunteers and myself take donated flowers to nursing home residents who are often forgotten by society.

Fortunately, Wright is visited frequently by her three children, three grandchildren and a dedicated friend named Ruthann Whalen who comes by almost every day.

Wright and Whalen attended nursing school together and worked as registered nurses for more than 40 years at various hospitals throughout the Denver area. Wright met her late husband, Ralph Wright, when he was a patient recovering from lung surgery at Fort Logan when it was a veterans hospital.

"When I first laid eyes on him — oh, what a deal," Wright said. "I married a patient."

The couple were married for 46 years, until he passed away from congestive heart failure in an Englewood nursing home 12 years ago.

"He was angry. He wanted to die at his house, but I couldn't take care of him. I was quite ill myself. I had just had my second hip replacement," Wright said. "He died one month from the day we put him in there."

After his death, Wright fought tooth and nail to stay out of a nursing home herself, but a broken leg six months ago forced her to sell her condo and become a full-time resident at Littleton Life Care Center, which is by far the nicest long-term care facility I've visited. The halls are decorated with rose-colored wallpaper, on which gorgeous still-life paintings are hung. Coffee stations and book carts are wheeled throughout the facility to accommodate visitor and resident needs — one reason, I'm sure, that the facility is 100 percent occupied, with a two-year waiting list for long-term care.

High occupancy rates at nursing homes are of growing concern, especially as baby boomers grow older, and Wright is well aware of the problem.

"Worse times are coming; there's no question about that," she said. "The care of the elderly in this country is pitiful. I don't know what's going to happen another generation down the road. Social Security is going to go poop, and there'll be even less than there is now, which is very little."

Wright is currently living off her retirement nest egg — stocks and bonds. But when that runs out, she doesn't know what will happen.

"This place is so nicely done," she said. "I don't mean the decorations — I mean the quality of care. Some places are pretty awful yet. Everyone ought to have kids to take care of them, I guess, but you know that's not going to happen. They're too damn busy with their own lives."

I wholeheartedly agree. It took a heart-wrenching experience with my grandmother for me to fully understand what happens to the elderly in our society, which is why I asked Courier editor Doug Bell if I could write this column. So please join me each month as I write about local nursing home residents. Hopefully, the column will compel readers to take a few minutes and write a sweet note to their love ones confined to long-term care.

Noelle Leavitt is a former news editor at Evergreen Newspapers who writes a monthly Forget Me Not column for the Columbine Courier. Contact her at leavittliz@yahoo.com or 720-299-4895.