The first thing I noticed when I began working in a nursing home was the smell. It’s everywhere. A mix of detergent and hospital smell and, well, people in nursing homes wear diapers. It’s one of those smells that takes over everything — if you’re not used to it, it’s hard to think about anything else.
Being in the nursing home is tough. People weep and smell and drool. Sometimes you can go on the floor and hear a woman in her 90s scream, “I want Mommy.”
But it’s also ordinary — just people living together: gossiping, daydreaming, reading, watching TV, scratching their back when it itches.
For the past eight months I have been working as a psychotherapist with dying patients in nursing homes in New York City. It’s an unusual job for a psychotherapist — and the first one I took after graduating with a PhD in clinical psychology. My colleagues were surprised. “Why not a hospital? Or an outpatient clinic? Do the patients even have a psychiatric diagnosis?”
The short answer is that I wanted to see what death looks and feels like — to learn from it. I hope that I can also help someone feel a little less lonely, a little more (is there a measure to it?) reconciled.
I haven’t gotten used to the smell yet. But I have been thinking a lot about the nursing home and the people who live and die there, and wanted to share what I learned.