We hear the cry in nursing homes — ‘Help me!’ — yet we turn away

Up to half of COVID-19 deaths are in long-term care facilities. But the righteous indignation of politicians and much of the public rings false.

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Meadowbrook Manor of Bolingbrook saw the largest increase in deaths of any nursing home in the state recently.

Meadowbrook Manor of Bolingbrook saw the largest increase in deaths of any nursing home in the state recently.

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As a young man, I stumbled out of an elevator onto the “Help me!” floor.

An ancient woman, whose pleadings will haunt me to my death, sat in a hallway in a wheelchair endlessly shouting, “Help me! Help me!” with her arms outstretched.

I ran to the nursing station nearby, where many people were busily working but ignoring the patient in need. “That woman needs help,” I barked.

A nurse, nurse’s assistant, attendant or someone in a uniform whose rank I could not identify slowly turned their head toward me from the paperwork they were working on at the time.

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“She does not need help,” this person said very firmly. “That is just what she does.”

I was convinced that this nursing home employee was a wretched person, as were they all. No feeling individual could turn a deaf ear to such cries of anguish. I walked over to the woman myself and said, “Can I help you?”

“Help me,” the tiny woman cried. “Help me!” There was no further explanation.

Years passed. I grew older. Visited many nursing homes. And eventually placed my father in one.

And one day, that tough old man, that World War II veteran, that survivor of the Great Depression, who as far as I know never asked anything from anyone, was sitting in his wheelchair in a hallway shouting, “Help me!”

“What, Dad?” I asked. “What do you need?”

He looked at me with searching eyes and said, “I don’t know.”

I came to the conclusion that he wanted out. Out of his predicament. Not just out of the nursing home, that wretched place where people wait for the end, but out of his body and out of the muddle that perplexed his mind.

It is a terrible place to be. To live or to work. To even think about.

I suppose that is why so many of us refuse to visit long-term care facilities, even before COVID-19 struck, before there was a quarantine.

I would visit my father every day. But I was usually alone. That didn’t make me better than other people. It did make me a little more mentally unstable during that time, I suspect.

It is said that for most states, a third of COVID-19 deaths are in long-term care facilities. In 14 states, more than half of the virus deaths are in such places.

Political leaders must do something to help our elderly, shriek those with grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, in such places.

And political leaders themselves shout that something must be done.

Yet, we know what these places are. We always have.

They are underfunded. Inspections are haphazard. They are often money factories. They are far too often warehouses, storage facilities, for those waiting to die.

That is not to say we don’t love the people inside. In fact, often we love them too much to see them waste away. It is terrifying to watch such a thing.

And so we leave underpaid, overworked and too often uncaring people to deal with the dirty work. We don’t want to look.

What happens when we don’t look is the same thing that always happens when people turn away. Abuse. Neglect. Incompetence.

There are sometimes angels at work in these places. I have seen them with my own eyes. They care. They pay a personal price I cannot imagine.

But when I hear howls of righteous indignation on this issue from the public and their representatives, I am reminded of the false outrage that erupts following a mass shooting by people who are mentally ill.

We are all standing on the “Help me!” floor listening to the anguished cries. I sometimes wonder if that’s my own pathetic voice I hear joining the chorus.

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