The 88-year-old woman who ‘escaped’ from her nursing home

The story of Rosie sheds light on the plight of the estimated 1,000 people forced into homes

 

The first time Rosie tried to “escape” from the nursing home, she packed her suitcase and sat by the door for nine hours, refusing food, water and medicine. Staff threatened to call the guards. Her eldest daughter came to tell her, “You are not going home.”

“I ate humble pie,” Rosie says. “I went to bed and I cried myself to sleep.”

That was in 2016.

She fell at home and her family grew concerned for her safety. Her daughters took her to the Dublin nursing home believing she could no longer look after herself.

She thought it would be for a few weeks.

Once doctors “got [Rosie’s] meds right”, she wanted to return to the southwest of Ireland. “My daughters kept saying, ‘Can’t you stay here? Isn’t it lovely? You can put on your beautiful clothes.’ I love clothes. I love nice food too. But it wasn’t home. I wanted to be in my kitchen.”

Rosie and one other woman were the only residents in the nursing home who could walk. “The others were all in bed, sleeping,” she says. “I’ll get to that stage myself, but when I do, please God, I’ll be trouble to no one and I’ll go quickly.”

Weeks in the nursing home turned to 10 months and, having lived independently at home, with weekly games of bridge and annual holidays with friends, Rosie found herself becoming institutionalised. She wanted to get out.

“I was like a bull. I was raging. I made sure I was home for Christmas.”

She paid a taxi-driver €320 to drive her home.

The consequences of her rebellion have been a source of immense satisfaction to the now 88-year-old great-grandmother.

“I am certain I did the right thing, because I am happy,” she says now, nearly two years later.

We have called her Rosie, a pseudonym, to protect her privacy and that of her family.

Today, she is reconciled with the children who wanted her to stay in the nursing home for her own safety, and lives happily in the two-storey terraced house she bought with her late husband in the southwest in 1954.

Self-liberation

Rosie’s act of self-liberation has made her an inspiration to other ageing people. “Recently, a woman living at home in Dublin 14 came up to me and said Rosie’s story gave her 10 years of her life back,” says Bibiana Savin, a regional co-ordinator for Sage, the support and advocacy service for older people. Savin had just given a presentation regarding the rights of senior citizens. She told them Rosie’s story, having first met her the day she was sitting at the nursing home door with her suitcase packed.

Rosie says she was “heartbroken” for the man with epilepsy and organic brain disease who was recently forced to remain in a nursing home against his will.

Until new legislation takes effect, cases like that man in his 60s who pleaded with a High Court judge earlier this month to allow him be released from a nursing home are decided under the 1871 Lunacy Act, which Mervyn Taylor, executive director for Sage, likens to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, about endless judiciary procedure.

The High court president, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, who visited the nursing home outside Dublin to hear the man’s evidence first-hand, said he had heard “a clash of medical evidence” regarding the man’s capacity to look after himself.

The man, who has been in the nursing home for several months, was opposing a Health Service Executive application to have him made a ward of court. He had told one doctor he understood a seizure could kill him but would rather be happy at home, where he could visit his mother’s grave, than safe in the nursing home.

Mr Justice Kelly ruled he should be made a ward of court, meaning he must remain in the nursing home.

Rosie feels for him. “It’s not easy because you’d have to get a carer and would the State pay for it? There’s a lot of ifs, ands and buts. You’ve got to organise his food and laundry. But if they have people to look after them, carers coming and going, that’s always best . . . It would upset me to see anyone in a nursing home when they want to go home. It’s the worst thing they could do to a person.”

Like Rosie, many older people are “shoe-horned” into permanent care in nursing homes, says Taylor. “They go in for convalescence or to give a relative respite,” Taylor explains. “Nobody has a straight conversation with them, so it is tantamount to dissembling or lying.”

The vast majority of nursing home residents “need to be there”, Taylor says. But, based on UK statistics, he believes there are up to 1,000 people in Ireland who, like Rosie in 2016, are effectively deprived of their liberty.

Articulate

Other older people might find it impossible to follow Rosie’s example. “If she was less articulate, and had less access to resources, she might still be in the nursing home,” Taylor adds.

The HSE sends a carer to Rosie’s house for 45 minutes each morning. Two months ago, she asked for, and obtained, a second, half-hour visit in the evening. The carer “tidies up the house, hoovers, dusts and runs the washing machine. In the evening we make a cup of coffee and we chat.”

Rosie takes medicine from a bubble pack marked with times and days. She pays €5 for the hot meals delivered at noon three days a week. The leftovers tide her over for the other days.

She usually plays bridge twice a week. “Everybody’s away for the summer and it’s hard to get a game,” she sighs. “I miss it.” She reads voraciously, listens to the radio and follows politics. “Why did they put him in?” she asks of Donald Trump. “He’s so rude. I like Michael D,” she adds. “He’s outspoken. He says what he means.”

Most days in summer, she walks to Mass in the cathedral where she was married and sang for 25 years in the choir. On Sunday, she takes a taxi to Mass, then dines with her daughter.

She has six children, 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A folding chair is kept by the front door. “I put on a swimming costume and sit in the front garden,” she says, explaining her suntan. “I take a dressing-gown, in case anybody comes by.”

Upstairs, she keeps the red suitcase she took to Europe and the US, and brought back from the nursing home. She shows me her three small bedrooms. “The girls were here, with double beds,” she says. “The boys were here. They were the happy days.” Her husband passed away in his sleep in 1994, just short of their 50th wedding anniversary.

Regrets

Rosie regrets having given her car away. “They all told me I’d have an accident, because I drove too fast. My son said, ‘Mam, the way you drove that car, it’s a miracle you didn’t kill somebody.’ It was a rude thing to say . . . If they give me back my license, I’d like another car.”

Rosie emphasises again and again the importance of living with one’s memories. She met her late husband at a dance when she was 17 and he was 23. He was a sailor. Rosie’s family were farmers and shopkeepers. “They wouldn’t agree to me marrying a sailor. So he looked for different jobs. Eventually he became a ship-builder.”

Rosie walks to the cemetery, 300 metres from her front door, to visit her husband’s grave. “I wear my white runners,” she says. “I talk to him. ‘Hello. How’ve ya been? I miss you . . .’”

Rosie would like to reach age 100. “I love life. I love people. I love laughter. I love dancing,” she says, tracing a few steps with her feet. “Put this down,” she orders me. “Love once and no more, because you only love once and I can’t understand how you could turn around and love again. I adored my husband and he adored me.”

Rosie says her lifelong friends “are still around, thank God, but they’re not as active as me. I haven’t an ache or a pain. It’s my good living.”

Is she a pioneer? I ask. “Not at all!” she laughs. “I’ll have a glass of wine with you any time!”

Rosie’s joie de vivre is contagious. Talking to her makes one feel that growing old is not a disaster, that happiness can be as simple as faith, a sense of home, and life’s small daily pleasures.

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