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For a Loved One, A 'Home' Is Not 'Home'

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I visited Jesse this morning and she hates her new surroundings. Though she's not normally a whiner, she seems to find nothing right about the place.

Knowing her as I do, I more or less expected that I'd have difficulty understanding what she was saying and that she'd be drooling uncontrollably. What I didn't expect was that she'd lunge at me when I leaned down to kiss her.

No one disputed that she belonged in a home, not I and certainly not any of her kids. She had become unpleasant, even dangerous to herself and to everyone around her. She fell down stairs, got into unprovoked fights with neighbors and couldn't control her bodily functions. There really wasn't any choice.

I visited a number of places before settling on The Bushes. There was Muttville, which I found a bit too diverse for someone of her pedigree. There was Paws-a- Moment Convalescent Facility, which Jesse said smelled sterile and boring. And there was Play Dead Until You're Not Playing Estates, which was just morbid.

Since entering the facility, Jesse's list of complaints has lengthened by the day. She says she marks the nurses' station only to find an hour later that somebody has marked over the same spot. She claims that her roommate cries all night. She says that the attendants are stealing her treats, then selling them to visitors who bring her the same treats as gifts.

There's more. She thinks someone is putting fleas in her bed so The Bushes can charge the insurance company for extra baths. She believes the place is using generic food that contains dog parts, although she grudgingly admits that she looks forward to chicken offal Thursdays. She believes the old guy who lives down the corridor is doing more than just saying "Hi" when he sniffs her butt.

She also says that the activities organized by the institution are of no interest to her. They tried to get her to join the chorus, but she told them that the only time she sang with others was when a coyote passed through the neighborhood.

Nor does Movie Night provide respite from her unhappiness. They recently showed 101 Dalmatians, a film she had gone to see more than ten times in her youth. But when she walked into the "community room" for the screening, she saw eleven of the film's stars sitting with open mouths, mottled spots and dry noses. Depressed, she went back to her room, the tick-tick-tick of her toenails on the linoleum echoing off the walls.

Jesse did find one pleasure when she came to The Bushes. It was Bingo. During her first two weeks there, she was at Bingo every night. Sadly, that simple pleasure vanished last Friday, when Bingo unexpectedly passed away.

Jesse constantly asks why one of her children can't take her in. I'm reluctant to tell her that they don't remember her. In fact, I suspect that if she ran into one of them on the street, she'd be more likely to nip his flank than nuzzle it.

"Convalescent homes," as we like to call them, aren't really places where someone goes to get better. At 14, the prospects are slim that Jesse will again roam the woods, catch a Frisbee with all four feet off the ground or take a midnight circuit of the house to make sure that everyone's in bed.

I can't help but ask myself whether we sent Jesse to The Bushes for her own welfare or for our convenience. True, the picking and mopping up had become tedious and irritating. True, she growled at our son when he grabbed a tuft of her hair. True, her breath and flatulence required apologies all around. But does all of this add up to justification for sending her to a strange, impersonal place to live out her days?

I'm not sure. What I do know is that things were a lot simpler before we had the option of shipping a loved one to a place out of sight and out of mind. The expansion of our choices has made life harder. Reverting to the notion that an old, loving and faithful member of the family is entitled to a permanent place beside the hearth would doubtlessly make our lives more difficult. But it would also tacitly affirm that incapacity should not lessen the value we assign to life --human or otherwise.