As shoots go, I didn’t start out thrilled about this one. It required a ten-hour drive to a town in Mississippi I’d never heard of. A town so small we had to stay in a hotel 40 minutes away. And to top it off, we were filming a nursing home.
Even knowing, as I did, that this was a 5-star rated nursing home that was being featured in a video for a national nursing home convention didn’t comfort me because one of my grandmothers is in a nursing home. Going to visit her is something I feel guilty about for not doing often enough and miserably sad every time that I do. It smells bad. People are parked in wheelchairs in front of blaring big screen TV’s for hours on end. My grandmother told me, every time, how much she hates it. Until she couldn’t remember who I am and stopped talking altogether.
So I wasn’t looking forward to filming a nursing home. From the outside, the one in Waynesboro Mississippi looks unremarkable – a 40 years old, one-story brick building with access code key pads on every door so nobody wanders in or out.
Inside though, was a completely different story. I’m used to places sprucing up when a film crew shows up. You can tell when everyone’s been told to be on best behavior and sense that once you wrap the shoot the carriage will turn back into a pumpkin. Don’t get me wrong. The Pine View staff was excited, but only to show off their Southern hospitality. A 70-year-old nurse named Doris baked us a coconut pound cake. The kitchen staff made sure we got watermelon and fried chicken for lunch. And before we left we had to put a dent in this 15-pound homemade banana pudding.
Nobody here needed to fake anything just because they were being filmed. I’ve never seen employees so proud of where they work and what they do. Working in a nursing home is a tough job – lifting people in and out of wheelchairs, taking them to the bathroom, giving baths, spoon feeding. And this facility wasn’t one of the new, fancy assisted living facilities where rich baby boomers send their aging parents. It’s mostly Medicaid and mostly dementia. The way the staff won top rating was the old-fashioned way – by caring.
The director and the chief of nursing carpool 60 miles each way, every day, to work here. Pine View has a full-time person who calls the families of every resident every day. Just to fill them in on what went right. What their loved one ate that day. Any little thing the nurses mentioned.
We started off filming the department heads around a table discussing how to lower re-hospitalization rates and keep staff turnover at zero. As in nobody quitting in over a year. Then each department head met with their staff in team talks, throughout the day, so that every new hire and janitor knew what the goals were and any problems that need fixing. I usually film videos for Fortune 500 companies and have never seen that kind of internal communication.
I got to be behind the scenes, incognito. I wasn’t directing this shoot or interviewing the head honchos. I was just helping the producer and Gary – I was the film crew equivalent of the housekeepers at the nursing home. So those housekeepers, and maintenance guys, and receptionists talked to me, unguarded, throughout the day.
Here’s the casual conversation that stunned me. I saw an old lady in a wheelchair sitting in the hallway next to a man I assumed was her husband. She patted his knee and asked him if he was going to take her home. He turned to her and said, “Who are you?”
It was a laugh/cry moment – the epitome of dementia. I asked a certified nursing assistant standing next to me how common wanting to be anywhere but a nursing home is. She said it’s normal and lasts a few months. I’ve been on the family side of this — my grandmother pleading to be taken home — but never thought about its impact on caregivers. So I asked the CNA if it was depressing. She said all she can do is be honest. She tells the confused residents that this is their home now and they’re here because their family loves them and wants to make sure they’re safe and healthy. And then she holds their hands and softly brushes their hair until she sees a smile.
My sister in law Lyn, who wrote the book on Person-Centered Care — literally – says this is a kind of revolution. For decades, low-paid caregivers were taught that “therapeutic lying” was the best way to ease that transition from independence to nursing home life. I thought of all the times it was easier not to answer my grandmother’s pleading questions (a form of lying) and imagined how hard it would be to work at a nursing home and have to answer those questions from almost every resident. I wouldn’t cut it at Pine View – that’s how high their standards are.
I still think one day we, as a society, are going to look back and question why we allocated more resources to jails and military bases than state-of-the-art facilities for our elders to age in. But until then, at least there are associations who reward those nursing homes that make the most of what they have: people who care more than most of us can imagine. Banana Pudding Angels.