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A Visit to Brooklyn Nursing Homes - An Emotional Day


By Tina Malguth, Global Action on Aging

May 29, 2008


Tina & Minnie

On May 29, 2008, I had the pleasure to spend a day with four awesome people – Chiquita, Annie, Marjie and John. We took a trip to visit several members of the Methodist Church who now live in nursing homes. 

From my first day at GAA, I wanted to see a nursing home in New York. I had volunteered in several German nursing homes and was curious to compare these institutions serving older persons.

GAA volunteer Chiquita Smith helped me visit three such homes in Brooklyn. She organized a trip with three friends and me. These cordial, lovely people made me feel comfortable and welcomed. 

But I have to add an impressive detail made the trip even more interesting. Chiquita Smith is 85 years-old and blind. I never met a person like her. A vital woman, she is full of energy and every one likes her immediately. I have a lot of respect for her. It made me happy that she trusted me to escort her throughout our day together.

I met Chiquita at 9.45 am in her 14th Floor apartment in Brooklyn. She has a great co.op apartment in a mixed income building with an awesome view of Manhattan. While we waited for her friends to arrive, she told me about her past trips to the Caribbean and Africa. Our car trip started at 10.30 am. 

The first person we visited was Ruby who is in her 80’s and very ill. We went to see Ruby in a nursing home that offered very poor service and accommodations. We walked to Ruby’s room on the 6th floor. The first thing I saw was a corridor filled with old people, some sitting in wheelchairs, others in beds lining the corridor walls. One was tied down. The smell was horrible. We heard a very, very loud TV noise coming from somewhere. We entered Ruby’s room which she shared with four other people. But the other visitors, Marjie and Annie, did not recognize Ruby. Her appearance had changed radically since their last visit. Chiquita asked, “Ruby, are you here?” And “yes” one of them said with a groan. That was Ruby, a woman who can no longer see, without teeth in her mouth, with grey hair and white skin. It was a sad sight. 

One of the caregivers arrived and announced abruptly that we had to leave the room. She said she had had no time to wash Ruby. She had to do it at that moment. It was 11.30 am. We wondered what would have happened if we had not visited her. Is Ruby washed normally? The caregiver sent us to the dining room. There were six people sitting there, mostly white people. And we realized that this was the room where the blasting TV sound originated. We could not talk to each other because of the loud TV. 

Chiquita and I went to a caregiver and asked if she would answer some questions about the nursing home. She said she could not. We were directed to the admission department on the first floor. We waited again. After 25 minutes, Chiquita was very angry saying “we have to go.” We asked what happened to Ruby. In an impolite way a caregiver said, “She is ready and she is in the corridor.” Yes, it was true. No one informed us and Ruby was with three other people alone, lying in bed, in the corridor.

It was horrible. Ruby could not really speak anymore. She made some sounds or sometimes I heard a “nice”. I took her hand to introduce myself so that she felt who was speaking with her. I stroked her hands for a few minutes. She squeezed my hand hard. So I had the feeling she really enjoyed my presence. 

Chiquita prayed for her with comforting words. It was so lovely, truly consolingly and filled with hopeful words, in this crowded corridor, in the smelly nursing home. It was very emotional: the prayers, the smell, Chiquita’s great voice and Ruby’s warm hand that squeezed mine so hard. I started to cry. I hoped no one saw it. But why should I be ashamed of crying? This was my feeling at that moment.

We said goodbye to Ruby and we all agreed that this was a horrible experience in a poorly kept nursing home. But before we left we wanted to speak with the responsible person from the admission’s office. We found him. He had no time for us saying he had another appointment. He said hurriedly that everything is fine in the nursing home, noting that people could choose their menus, they have daily activities and they could vote. He gave us a brochure and we left the nursing home.

In the next nursing home we visited Minnie who is 83 years old. She is a lovely old lady who has problems with her knees and sits in a wheel chair. She impressed me because she is so funny with a great sense of humor and full of energy. 

This nursing home made a much better impression. They had a dog, birds and a fish tank in the entrance area. It did not smell bad. The people were very polite; we had to sign in and we got a name tag. So it gave the feeling that it is an organized place. 


The older residents were white, black and Hispanic persons. It was a mixture of people and no one was parked in the corridor. Minnie lives in a two bedroom apartment. However, we were not allowed to take a seat in her room, so we had to use the visitor’s area. But again there was such a noisy TV with residents parked around it. No one was watching TV: they either slept or turned away from the screen. This same sad situation mimicked what we had witnessed earlier. But the television set had a modern high tech flat screen. Which is “very important” for a nursing home, I guess.

Minnie was very happy that we visited and she is pleased with her nursing home. The only thing she complained about was that she does not have much money for her incidentals. She gets $50 per month from the nursing home. I wondered if there was some accounting from the nursing home to assure honest behavior. Spontaneously Chiquita, Marjie and Annie gave Minnie some money. Not much, but it was very generous.


Minnie, Chiquita, Marjie & Annie


In the last nursing home we visited Gertrude. This was my favorite facility. The nursing home did not look fancier than the second one but it was much more lively. We found Gertrude in a common room with around 20 other older persons. But they were laughing and singing. The caregivers were nice. The elderly enjoyed it so much when they put nice smelling lotion on the resident’s hands. One caregiver had a singing toy parrot and the older persons enjoyed it a lot. In this nursing home there was no loud TV blasting out. In this common room were only African Americans and Hispanic persons. I enjoyed the time there a lot. Gertrude had forgotten her age. She knew that she was born in November but she does not know when. But she is in her 90’s, Annie said. 


Chiquita, Annie, Gertrude & Marjie


I noticed that there were only women in these three homes. All the nursing homes were private profit-making facilities. I could not compare the German nursing homes where I worked with those that I visited. The time was too short. But, of course, they looked different. Private nursing homes are also different in Germany and in the US. 

After these visits I returned to work at GAA. Chiquita’s friend, John drove me to a subway station. I enjoyed the car drive and talking with Chiquita’s friends. They were so nice and communicative people. We spoke a lot and fun.


John and Annie


Especially John helped us laugh, even while discussing racism in the US. Because I was the only white person in the car, I learned much from them about their experiences, contrasting what happened in the past and how they feel today. 

It was such a great day: stressful and emotional but nonetheless fun and exciting. I would recommend that every reader of this account visit the nursing homes in their area to monitor what’s going on. In many cases, once people enter a nursing home they cannot protect themselves. 

Thanks a lot to Chiquita, Annie, Marjie, John and GAA. 

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