It was a visit I did not want to make but knew I had to do it. For two years I had found excuses to not visit the nursing home where my older friend Gus lived. Rhinebeck, New York is a long way from my home so I telephoned regularly and enquired after him. As I was not on the list of people authorized to be told anything about Gus the nursing staff could only confirm that he was alive. I accepted their response and selfishly moved on with my life, satisfied that my older friend Gus was being cared for by people I didn’t know. But I couldn’t get out of my mind that he was living in a place without family and friends while I was surrounded by my children and grandchildren including my younger friend Gus. No one wants to visit a loved one who has dementia and does not recognize them. It is hard to be confronted with a vacant stare from someone you love and have known for most of your life. It is easier to not visit at all. After all if they don’t know you then they wouldn’t know that you have not visited them. The problem was I knew.
After arriving in New York I telephoned the nursing home to confirm that my older friend Gus was alive. They told me he was still with them and in response to my question: “Does he need things like clothes, music, books or anything else?” the nurse replied: “No, he is fine.” I asked when I could visit him and was told “come anytime during the day.” Now I was committed to make the visit.
It was a two-hour drive from New York City to Rhinebeck and I thought we should leave early. The SATNAV in the rental car plotted the fastest route bypassing the towns in the Hudson Valley and we made good time. As I thought about the visit I wondered what I would say if my older friend Gus did not recognize me. I probably would laugh it off and make some remark about the whiskey sours having an effect on his memory. After I reminded him of our fishing trips from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and the many parties at his house I was sure he would remember and we would laugh about the “good old days.” Also, I thought about the nurse’ comment that he didn’t need anything and he was fine. It was two years since I sent him some new tracksuit pants so he must have worn them out by now. I saw an exit towards Poughkeepsie and decided to get off the Taconic Parkway and go to the Galleria shopping mall. I remembered the Macy’s department store there and the other places I could buy some clothes for my older friend Gus. Ignoring the pleas of the voice on my SATNAV to do a U-turn when it was safe to do so, and after several wrong turns I drove into the parking lot of the mall. We had plenty of time so decided to explore the mall and ended up in the food court looking for a coffee. After a coffee we wandered through Macy’s and then Dick’s Sporting Goods store looking at the trendy Under Armour gear and the soccer jerseys that my younger friend Gus likes so much. It was easy to fill in a couple of hours in a shopping mall without buying anything except lunch in the food court. After all there was no hurry as we were only 20-30 minutes away from Rhinebeck.
Two hours in the mall, a light lunch and more coffee exhausted all the excuses I could think of to delay the visit to the nursing home. We drove slowly along Route 9N being careful not to exceed the speed limit following the directions from the SATNAV lady whose tone had become more harsh since I refused to do a U-turn when it was safe to do so. Four hours after we left New York we reached historic Rhinebeck and followed the SATNAV lady’s directions to the nursing home outside of the town on 36 acres of parkland of the former Astor Estate. The long narrow driveway through the trees was a relief from the traffic on the Taconic and Rte 9N. There were no other cars on the road and the visitor parking lot was quiet. I thought maybe it was the wrong day or the wrong time to visit the nursing home, even though I had been told to come anytime. We walked slowly towards the door to the main building, stopping to look at the beautiful gardens and smile at the residents in their wheelchairs enjoying the sunshine. They seemed happy to see visitors even though we weren’t there to see them. We looked carefully to see if my older friend Gus was among them but he wasn’t there. The reception area was busy with residents and their carers happily moving in and out of the elevators. After signing the visitor’s book and asking for the room number we stood in line for the elevator, letting the residents in their wheelchairs go before us. We quickly reached the 5th floor and walked past the common room where we were invited in by a resident to enjoy an ice cream. Apparently ice cream was provided for the residents there each day as the room was noisy and full of happy people.
We walked slowly along the corridor until we found the room number, the door was open. It was a small room with two beds but one of them was empty. In the second bed, near the window, we saw a small person huddled beneath the bed clothes, lying motionless on his side with mouth open and eyes staring at the ceiling. This couldn’t be my older friend Gus so I left the room to check the number on the door. My wife remained in the room, speechless. The number was correct and on the wall beside the door was a name “Gustav Johnson” – no one called him “Gustav” perhaps only his mother when he was a boy. I walked back into the room hoping that the empty bed was for “Gustav” and he was either outside enjoying the sunshine or in the common room eating an ice cream. I looked around the room and saw on the small table beside the bed a photograph I had taken many years before of my older friend Gus’ wife Janette. There was a wedding photograph of the two of them in a small frame and a photograph of “Gustav” in his Army uniform. I looked closely at the person in the bed. His eyes moved slowly to my face and from his open mouth I heard a faint gurgling sound as though he was trying to speak. I tried to speak but couldn’t, tears running down my cheeks and dropping onto the floor. The first voice I heard was from my wife who said: “Hello Gus, we have traveled a long way to see you. How are you?” His eyes tried to move towards the voice but couldn’t so I made another attempt to talk to my older friend Gus and said: “Hello Gus, we have traveled a long way to see you. How are you?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say then I heard my wife say: “Gussie it is Joan and Ken, do you remember us?” There was no reply just a slight movement of his eyes and a gurgling sound from his throat. Joan and I cried.
After a while we tried again to talk to my older friend Gus knowing that he could not reply and did not know who we were. We told him about our children and grandchildren and said we were sure he was being well cared for in this lovely home. His eyes closed as he drifted off to sleep so we stopped talking and stared at each other, tears still falling from our eyes. I said to my wife that I would go to the nurses’ station and find out more about my older friend Gus and left the room quickly. She remained in the room talking quietly to Gus and stroking his head, the only thing we could see from under the blanket. At the end of the corridor there were five nurses sitting and chatting with each other, on their break from a demanding job. They stopped when I approached and introduced myself as a long-time friend of Gustav Johnson. “Oh Gus, one said, we love him, he has such a sense of humor, always telling jokes, loves his food and he is full of stories.” Another said: “Well, that is until 3-4 months ago, now he can’t talk, he doesn’t know who we are and we have to feed him because he can’t swallow easily.” Further questions were not answered because I was not on the list of people approved to receive information about his condition. I raised my voice a little so I could be understood and asked: “If he has no friends or family, then who approves the names on the list?” There was no reply. I told the nurses a little more about my relationship with Gustav Johnson, our fishing trips, the parties, drinking whiskey sours while playing golf, our exchange of dirty jokes over the years, the photographs on his table I had taken many years before and the two new photographs of my younger friend Gus I had placed beside his bed. We laughed as we talked about Gustav and they told me some stories about him since he moved to live at the nursing home when one nurse said that was before the Parkinson’s. She quickly commented: “I wasn’t supposed to say that, it just slipped out.”
I returned to where my older friend Gus was sleeping, watched over by my wife, and looked around the room to see three old photographs of my younger friend Gus pinned to the mirror on the wall. My older friend Gus could see them from his bed. He was ninety-four and a half years old and it was only since his last birthday that his quality of life had declined to zero so he had a good life. My younger friend Gus is seven and a half years old with a lifetime of fun and stories ahead of him. He would be pleased to know that his photographs would be some of the last things that my older friend Gus would see but I don’t know how to tell him.
We watched my older friend Gus sleep until we could not stay in the room any longer. After a brief “goodbye” and a gentle kiss on his cheek, Joan and I left him sleeping alone in his tiny room, with photographs of his wife Janette, who died some years ago suffering from dementia, and a little man named Gus. I drove away quickly from the nursing home and headed for Boston to visit family there. I thought I was prepared to deal with seeing another long-time friend with dementia. I wasn’t and the image of my older friend Gus in bed, alone and unable to communicate remains fixed in my head.