My grandfather had a dread of nursing homes. He’d seen too many people he knew who had to go into one…especially his sister Allie. 

Allie was my great-aunt. I’m not sure how it started, but once to make her laugh I stuck out my tongue and blew “raspberries” at her. She got such a kick out of it that I did it every time I saw her or talked to her on the phone. She actually would be disappointed if I didn’t blow “raspberries” at her. 

Aunt Allie developed dementia and had to be put in a nursing home. For a while she still laughed when I blew “raspberries”. But after a while even that didn’t make her laugh anymore.   

My grandfather saw all of that, and he began to say to us, “Don’t ever put me in a nursing home!” And we never wanted to. 

But my grandfather slowly began to deteriorate as he got older. His driving began to get more erratic. Then my grandmother confessed to us that sometimes when they’d go to the grocery he couldn’t remember how to get home, and they’d drive around for hours before he finally found the way back. He began to be restless and wakeful at night, and would wander around the house as though sleepwalking. In his mind he was somewhere else back in his past, doing things and talking to people that had long since been gone. 

Then one night he had an episode in which he nearly hurt my grandmother. That’s when my father and my youngest brother began staying with my grandparents at night, taking turns to keep watch on my grandfather. But they were both working full time as well, and the lack of sleep quickly took it’s toll on them. 

We were all heartbroken, but circumstances had forced our family into making the decision my grandfather never wanted us to make: he had to be put in a nursing home. My Dad and my brother were spent physically, and we couldn’t take a chance on my grandfather hurting my grandmother. 

We never used the words “nursing home” around my grandfather. We told him he was in a “rehabilitation center”. He grew weaker and had to use a wheelchair. His confusion slowly worsened, too, but he would have semi-lucid moments. One day several of us were visiting him and he told us, “I want to take my little automobile and go home.” We finally realized me meant his wheelchair. 

One weekend he was allowed to go home for a day. He was so happy to be back in his house! My Dad returned him to the nursing home before evening when his confusion worsened.

My grandfather came home for a visit just one more time. But he kept looking around and saying, “I want to go home.” That was the last time he was ever in his own house. He just didn’t know he was there.

I saw my grandfather whenever I went to Indianapolis. When I would visit him in the nursing home, I always tried to get him to remember something from the past, and to make him laugh. And he would always introduce me to any of the staff who were there. “This is my grandson, a minister of the Gospel!” he would say with great pride.

I always hated leaving him there. I always cried as I walked back down the hall toward the entrance. 

Then one day I couldn’t get him to remember anything. And he didn’t know who I was. I cried hard that day.

My grandfather was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at some point. The day he died, my Dad called to tell me. My unpremeditated reaction was to exclaim, “Thank God!” And Dad said, “Yes! Now he knows who he is again, and he knows who we are again.”

My grandfather spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home. My mother spent the last few months of her life in a nursing home. It was the same experience, it just didn’t last as long. I always hated leaving her there.

Then last year we had to put my Dad in a nursing home. Looking back, my brothers and I can see that Dad deteriorated fast. His driving became erratic and we had to take his keys away from him. Then the house became too much for him, and we had to break up his house and move him into an assisted living apartment. Then it became evident that he just couldn’t stay by himself anymore, and my brothers and I were at the limit of what we could do and how much we could be with him. He even went to live with my middle brother and his wife for a few months, but it soon exhausted their resources and threatened their health. 

So we had to put Dad in a nursing home, too. They were good to him there, and gave him the care that was beyond what we could do. Rae Anne and I would go up every Monday to see him, take him out to eat and get him out of those halls for a while. But oh, how I hated leaving him there! It was hard every time. And again when my brother called to tell me Dad had passed in his sleep, I said “Praise the Lord!” Then I cried.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m glad we have nursing homes. They’re like hospitals: nobody wants to go there, but when you need one, you’re glad they’re there. 

But there are nursing homes, and then there are nursing homes. My observation over the years is that, no matter how good they are, you always need family members to keep watch over things and advocate for the care of their loved one. 

The best nursing home I’ve ever seen was a Catholic one in Indianapolis. It was clean and bright and it smelled good. And over and over again, painted on walls or hanging in frames, were the words of Jesus: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto Me.” The nuns that took care of the residents were smiling and joyful. It was obvious that to them it was much more than a minimum-wage job. I even saw a nun dancing with some of the residents. I told my wife, “If I ever have to go into one of these places, convert and put me in here!”

Sometimes church people act as though they don’t have to visit people in nursing homes, because that’s what they’ve hired the pastor for. Let me point something out to you. James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” That passage isn’t about pastors and their duties, and it isn’t just pastors that are supposed to have “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.” That passage is for everybody. 

It’s not easy. They may not remember you’ve been there. They may not remember who you are. But go, “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). And go, do something for Jesus. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Solo Deo Gloria! 

Pastor David