My father’s father, Liang Shao Pu, lived to the age of 93. A lifelong student and then teacher of tai chi and a diehard Wheel of Fortune fan, he had a slow, deep‑throated laugh that never failed to infect my sister and me, sending us into spasms of giggles. After moving from Taiwan to the United States to be close to his children and grandchildren, my grandfather often picked us up from school, the silhouette of his baseball cap visible from down the block. He was never late.
My grandfather quietly sustained the heartbreaks of my parents’ divorce, the passing of most of his friends, and then the loss of his wife of more than 40 years. After my grandmother’s stroke, she could no longer care for herself. With tremendous courage and love, for years he cooked every meal, talked to her, and kept her comfortable until the end. One of my greatest regrets in life is that we did not provide him with the same comfort and care in the final moments of his life.
After repeated strokes, my grandfather’s condition had deteriorated to the point that my dad no longer felt capable of providing the support he needed to stay at home and could not find appropriate home care support, so my grandfather was placed in a nursing home, against his wishes. I visited my grandfather there before he passed away.
My grandfather’s bed was along a wall in a large, dark room with six other people, half of whom were completely silent, while the other half expressed their misery in loud, painful cries. The room lights were kept off, while a sickly fluorescent light in the hallway flickered. The place smelled like mold and death. It was my heart‑wrenching introduction to dehumanizing institutional care.
When I arrived at his bedside, my grandfather was distressed. He believed the nursing home staff was trying to poison him. He had not slept or eaten for some time. He was frightened and in pain. He was a shadow of the person I knew growing up. I was furious and devastated.
After three months, he passed away in that facility. I almost feel as though he died the moment he arrived there; his dignity was stripped away upon entry. My father, my sister, and I will always regret that my grandfather’s final hours and ultimately his death were so lacking in comfort and beauty. He meant so much to us. I so wish we had been able to keep him at home.
I’m far from alone in my aversion to nursing homes. Nearly 90 percent of Americans feel institutions are not the appropriate place for elders to spend their final moments, months, or years. The great majority of us want to live and age at home. The question is how, exactly, we can manage that.