Home Is Where...Where?

It's nursing home day. I don my social work hat, abandon my laptop and drive off to see what's new with my old guys...

Willie Mae has to move out of her private room, into a semi-private one hall over. Her family can't pay the extra $450 a month to keep her where she is and so the social worker tries to smooth over the transition.

"Isn't this a nice room?" She asks Willie, pointing out that it's at the end of the hallway, so she'll have more privacy.

Willie Mae shrugs, unconvinced. "But how will I find it?" she protests. "I'll never remember how to get to my new room." Willie Mae stops and frowns. "But then, I don't know where my room is now, so what does it matter? All right. I'll move."

Willie Mae takes these things in stride, just as she has all of her life. She worked hard in the cotton mill and raised her son. Later she made almost daily trecks up to this same nursing home to look after her elderly brothers. Tough and independent, Willie Mae was a tiny tornado of a woman. Barely five feet tall but wiry and quick to jump to her brothers' defense.

Then she fell, fracturing her hip, and Willie Mae's world began to crumble. As it so often happens with the elderly, an infection or anesthesia seems to trigger confusion and hallucinations. From there, it's an easy slide into dementia. Some physical trauma occurs and the brain never fully recovers. At least, with the people I see in the nursing home, that's how it seems to happen.

Willie Mae joined her last remaining brother in the nursing home and when he died, she grieved- then forgot all about it. Her aide reminds her. "No honey, he's passed, remember?"

If I were Willie Mae, I don't think I'd want to be reminded that I was now all alone.

Today I found Willie Mae wandering the halls. Thinking she was going to Residents' Council, I offered to lead her to the dining room where they were having a special lunch.

"No, she doesn't go in there," an aide told me, turning us away from the party Willie Mae thankfully never knew about. "She needs to go back to her room."

And therein lay the rub...

"I don't know where my room is," Willie Mae said, clinging to her PVC plastic walker.

I slowly lead her through the rabbit warren of hallways, down a burgundy-stripe, wallpapered hallway and into her new room.

"Here you go," I announce, ushering her inside.

Willie Mae looks around, frowns and shakes her head. "This isn't my room."

I remind her of the move that happened a few days ago. I point out the pictures on her bulletin board and the book lying open on her bed.

The book stops me. It looks like heavy reading for little Willie Mae, a woman too forgetful to find her own room. It is entitled something like "Why Christians Shouldn't Be Antisemetic." But her name is written in spidery, old lady script across the front cover.

"Is this your book?" I ask innocently.

Willie eyes the book. "I have that book at my house!" she cries.

"I think it must be yours," I say, showing her the name written in blue ink. "Isn't that your name?"

Willie shakes her head. "No. Someone might've brought mine from my house and left it here, but this isn't my room. I know the woman bought this place and she's a mean 'un. We don't want to get her riled," she says, indicating the little old lady sleeping in the bed across the room. "Let's go."

I spend the rest of the day retrieving Willie Mae from other hallways and gently leading her back to her room.

"I know you must be tired," I say finally.

"I really am," she sighs.

We pass by her old room. Earlier, an elderly man had been in the bed, pale and sleeping, unaware of Willie Mae standing in his doorway, a hurt, puzzled expression on her face.

A few hours later, as I walk back up Willie's new hallway, I almost collide with a grey-draped gurney carrying a dead body out to the waiting hearse. When I round the corner and pass by Willie's old room, the bed is empty, its sheets stripped. In the corridor, a small cluster of visitors huddle, crying into tissues.

Willie appears, seeming to materializie out of nowhere just behind me. "I don't see why I can't go in there and rest awhile," she says. "They told me I could still use it now and then."

I distract her away from the room that smells like death. We walk slowly down the burgundy-striped hallway and into the room with the book that has her name written across the cover.

"That's a Jewish book," Willie Mae says. "It's about Jewish history."

"It says anti-Semitism is a sin," I say, leafing through the pages.

"That's right," Willie agrees. She smiles at me like I'm a slow student beginning to grasp a difficult concept.

"That poor lady!" her new nurse murmurs when I pass her a few minutes later. "You'd think they wouldn't confuse these poor people like that. They shouldn't move them." I love Willie Mae's new nurse.

When I leave for the day, Willie Mae is sitting in the day room, a forlorn expression on her face. Her eyes are puffy and red with fatigue and frustration. A visitor from the old hallway walks up to her, puts her arms around Willie's bony bird-like shoulders and hugs her. "There you are!" the newcomer cries. "I wondered where you were!"

I meet Willie's gaze as she stares back over her friend's shoulder. She gives me a wry smile. "There you are," the lady says, hugging Willie tighter and repeating the phrase that lingers in my head like a mantra.

"There you are."

Of course. How simple. "Home is where they're always glad to see you." "Home is where the heart is."

Wrapped in her friend's arms, Willie Mae has found her home...at least for the moment.

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