Windstorm number eight

Down the eerie hallway, emergency lighting kicked in. It was dinner time and most of the inmates of this kooky residence were on the main floor waiting for the aides to help them up the elevator. With the power out, the elevators weren’t running. Over a hundred residents and most of the employees now had to stay on the main floor.

People seem to forget that elderly people have had experiences in their lives. People seem to assume that once a person is relegated to these hellish antechambers to heaven, that they are incapable of thinking or reasoning. In fact, the generation of people being processed through the entrance trials for dying are full of experience that has been parked at the door, waiting for the final run. Staff and visitors are generally ignorant of their personalities, of their rich lives behind them, of their accomplishments, their tribulations they have conquered, the prizes they have won and the works they have excelled at.

Most of these residents were from pioneering families who lived with grit and determination to carve out communities where none had existed before. Most had lived through the Great Depression and at least one World War; many have lived through two. One told me her own tales of the blitz in London and how her father, one of the volunteer Home Guard, had been blown to smithereens one night in a bombing on Downing street and the fact of it was announced at her door by a police man the next day. Another had told of her experiences in the Dutch East Indies army during the Second World War. That was hairy! Mrs. C had been a reporter for the Vancouver Sun and the Province her whole life, and Mrs. M had been a politician both in the provincial government and in the federal. Molly had been in the flooded parts of the province in 1948 when the Fraser had spilled over the dykes stranding thousands. Peter the architect had travelled world wide with his professional duties. There were several doctors and university professors. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, all crippled and wrinkled as they were, doddering on unstable legs, shuffling along in their walkers and being pushed in their wheelchairs, unable to hear, to see and impaired in their speaking. Everyone had a story to tell, but few had someone to tell it to, so they became anonymous bodies to be cared for, like sacks of potatoes.

And so, sacks of potatoes and cognizant alike, were lined up along the full length of the long hall to the dining room and adjoining television/lounge area wrapped as best as possible in blankets from the store room. They looked like they were on a ship cruise sunning themselves, waiting for the activity director to propose the next diversion, only it was dark inside. Most of them recognized the power outage for what it was, stoically ready to wait in the darkness until the power could be restored. Some pioneering spirits were trying to comfort some less coherent inmates; others, telling stories to cheer their compatriots in adventure, some trying to get the attention of the nurses and aides who could barely cope with the magnitude of needs that were all massed together making concurrent demands on their skills. This was one time when economies of scale were not working. Having everyone together requesting attention at the same time was not conducive to a calming outcome!

However, this night was one where the staff shone. No one went home, even though it was long after their usual quitting time. The manager phoned to other staff, off duty, and asked those who could to come back. It was going to be quite a task keeping these hundred elderly patients calm in the dining room and hallways of the main floor. I can tell you now that the event lasted eight and a half hours. There were pills to give, people to take to the bathroom, people who needed to lie down.  I challenge you to imagine how hard it would be for you, yourself, to sit in the same place for eight hours –  to sit upright, unable to lie down, nor relax, nor amuse yourself, nor get up and stretch your legs, or do something constructive about your own situation. It was something like a trip to Australia without the leg break in Hawaii.

We’d be going crazy, I’d say. I was amazed, too, at the calm that the residents themselves brought to the occasion.

In the murky dark, a few emergency lights shone. The main entrance, in fire alarm mode, had switched to fail safe – the outer automatic door was permanently open letting in a howling wind to the first lobby, blocked by a poorly insulated second set of manual doors. It was decidedly cool and the heat was no longer circulating in the building since the air handling units were shut down.

Two employees guarded the door. There were a number of escape artists amongst the residents. How could one even think of abandoning the other patients on a night like this to go looking for a foolhardy escapist who would brave the storm without any thought to their comfort or safety. It must not happen!

By the time Otto and I had arrived, not knowing the power failures had affected the residence, the staff had calmed the few wailers and assisted half of the residents to sofas in the television corner. Those with walkers or wheel chairs were lined up against the walls waiting for the elevator to come back on. A few more hardy souls were trying to play cards by candlelight at one of the dinner tables, hindered cruelly in their failing eyesight by the pitched gloom.

From our opposing perspectives, our emergency mode kicked in. Otto could see that people needed entertaining. He is wonderful at this. He loves gathering, parties, telling stories. He has an amazing ability to remember people’s names and a little fact about them. It is his one quality that makes him shine at his business net-working. He moved from one resident to another, greeting them by name, asking them how they were bearing up, telling them a little tale of the world outside, and moving on to the next one. They were happy for the diversion and it cheered the company immensely.

Mother, we both agreed, could wait. She had Heather in attendance and Otto’s ex-wife keeping her company. In any case, Mother was too absorbed in her process of dying to be cognizant of the world past her own bed. She was completely internalized now.

I, too, was greeting the residents, but mostly the ones I had gotten to know in a deeper way. I ran emergency commissions for those who were fretting to a point of sub-panic.

Maria, for instance, was upset about her pills. If not taken on time, she would go into convulsions. She had been sitting in the same place for over two hours already and could not capture a nurse’s attention to tell of her plight. I found the fourth floor nurse and explained Maria’s concern. Someone would have to run up the emergency fire escape stairs to the fourth floor and obtain the pills. It was arranged, and I went on to the next one. Another resident was unusually cold and I found someone on staff to give me an extra blanket for her. Dr. John who lived across the hall from Mother had Parkinsons disease. It had advanced to the stage where he could only sit up so long. I hailed a passing employee and requested some place where he might lie down. The need to lie down turned out to be a problem for others as well and something was arranged, though now I can’t remember what, to accommodate them.

At the front desk, the reception was lit with a few candles and one good flashlight. Though the candles worried us for the risk of fire, there was not much option. The emergency lights were faltering. One by one, they were extinguishing, depending on the remaining power in the battery packs. They were meant to keep the place lit for an evacuation, not for maintaining light during an extended power outage. Now we were really in the dark.

Otto and I revised our plans. This was, after all, an adventure! We could be an extra two useful bodies! But first of all, we needed to see Heather and Mom. We were given one flashlight to navigate up the emergency escape stairs. It was all that could be spared. The magnetic safety lock on the stairwell was released. We opened the fire door and began to climb. Now, I’ve some pretty arthritic knees that complain loudly about stairs, but it had to be done. Pulling myself along by the metal tube railing, step by step, we climbed the four floors.

“Are you coming?” impatient Otto called. He was faster, and his wavering light was hardly helpful to me. I was feeling the next stair with my toe before setting upon it. It would be horrible to fall now in this stairwell, on concrete, and add to the confusion and turmoil below. Gratefully, I saw that Otto was opening the fourth floor stairwell door, waiting for me. I stood, breathing deeply on the top stair, catching my breath. I was out of shape. I’d need to do this daily to not tremble with the effort. Positively thinking, it was great exercise!

We passed by the nursing station where Gina, the only employee on the fourth floor, was standing by seemingly unable to do anything but wait until circumstances changed.

“Are you managing?” we asked, as we fished for details on what help was available. Who, for instance, was going to bring Mother’s hourly morphine? What if additional services were needed. How was she going to phone the ambulance, if necessary? All the phone lines were out. All the intercom was disabled by the power failure. Who would help her if two people were needed for a nursing task?

Gina looked puzzled and concerned. “There’s only me,” she answered. “What else can I do? I’m the only one here.”

“Well, how many people are there on the floor?” we asked.
“Well, your mom, to begin with, but she has company. And Mrs. Cooper. And Doris across the hall. She never leaves her room. And Mr. Howe. And Ethel who won’t stay in her room and is down with your family.Is that five?”

I thought, How horrible! Those residents were lying in the pitch dark, unable to call for help if they needed it; with no one to up date them on progress. There was not even any ambient light from the city street lights. Everything was out and black.

In Mother’s room, a one dollar Canadian tire flashlight was illuminating Heather’s face, Otto’s ex and little Ethel, like a modernized candle lit tableau of George de la Tour. They had been unable to leave Mom and so were eager to hear our description of the situation below. We promised to come back for a slightly later night shift but in the interim, we were going back home for all the flashlights we could spare and all our home’s overstock of candles and batteries. No one had counted on a full night power outage. No one could have foreseen that it would occur on a Sunday night when not a single store would be open selling flashlights or batteries. Scout’s honour, they were not prepared.

“How did you get here, Ethel?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s not any fun in my room.” she answered with a pixie smile, hoping she could stay. “There’s company here.”

“Yes, but how did you get back up here from dinner?” I insisted. “Or didn’t you have your dinner?” She was so slight she hardly ate her dinner. It would not have bothered her to miss it.

“Oh yes, she confirmed. I was downstairs when the lights went off, but I walked up the stairs when I was finished, and here I am.”

I was amazed and horrified at the same time. The staff had release the lock on the fire stairwell to let her walk up. She was a sweet little bundle of determination, but she was unstable on her legs and frail. How could they have let her come up four flights on her own? It was unconscionable! And yet her grit and perseverence had brought her here unscathed. Truly, to have succeeded at this task, she was either an angel or under an angel’s wing.

As we were talking, I heard a weak sounding, “Hello? Hello?” from somewhere in the hall way. While the others were chatting and planning, I took one light and went out to see whence came the tiny voice. On the floor across the hall, I could see Doris’ head extending outside her doorway, calling weakly.

“Oh my poor dear!” I cried. Otto came running as he heard me speak.

“What has happened to you!?”

Doris recounted her need for the bathroom, how she had gotten up, since no one came (that dreadful fear of wetting one’s bed drives people to do unsafe things!) and tried to feel her way to the bathroom. Something, she could not say what, had gone wrong and here she was.

Now what? I thought rapidly. This was not my responsibility and anyway, I couldn’t lift her. My first aid training said never to lift a fallen patient until they had been checked for bruises, cuts and bone breaks.

I said to Otto, ” We can’t touch her. We’ll have to get help. It’s too risky. I can’t lift her and neither can you. We don’t know what her medical condition is.”

“Just don’t touch her, we don’t know if anything is broken,” I added more forcefully. In his generosity and helpfulness, he could do more harm than good. “I’ll go get help,” I offered. “You stay with her.”

I reported the fall to Gina who shrugged her shoulders a little in a gesture that repeated her earlier despair of What can I do?

She’s always falling” she drawled somewhat defensively. I’m all alone up here,” she answered in a frustrating non sequitor. “I can’t leave my station.” It wasn’t a refusal to do anything, but it seemed obstructive. My years of authority kicked in. This nurse was going to take responsibility or my name wasn’t Kay!

“Gina, I will stay at your station. I can’t do the stairs again. My knees are injured. You go and get some aides to help you. You can’t leave Doris like that. Besides just looking after a helpless woman, the liability is too great. There’s nothing going on here right now. You go!”

The tone of my voice must have stirred her. She did not answer. Her eyes searched mine in the dim light to see how serious I was and what trouble I could make afterwards. She broke the stare, lowered her eyes, said nothing more and went.

Five minutes later, two aides came and Gina was back at her post.

“Oh, she always falls”, confirmed one of the girls. Without ceremony, without checking Doris’ condition, one locked a wheelchair to prevent it from slipping and each took one side of Doris under her shoulder and heaved the hundredweight sack of potatoes into the wheelchair. With one more adjustment for comfort, Doris was settled into the chair.

Before we left on our treasure hunt for batteries and candles, I spent a few minutes getting to know this lovely sack of potatoes, now restored to her bed. She hadn’t known why the lights were out, but she was glad to be back in her own bed and dry. On her side of the residence, there was a faint glow from a distant part of the city still operating on electricity. She assured me she would be fine and she had suffered no great hurts and so I left her.

Otto and I returned an hour later. We gave our safety gear to the reception desk. They, in turn, offered us pizza that they had ordered in for the staff who had stayed much after their normal times. Otto and I had been thinking en route, that there were many things about a prolonged emergency that this facility did not seem to think about. We had suggestions and were not shy in giving them, as diplomatically as possible.

We chatted casually, but inserted questions that we thought bore merit as we went.

“Have you called 911 to have them on alert, so that they know about your situation?At least the Fire Department should know in case of a fire. All your regular safety alarms are down!”

“What would you do if a fire broke out? How would you evacuate them.What would you do about the people upstairs?”

” Don’t you have a supply of flashlights and batteries for an emergency?”

“I heard that you’d given candles to some residents who are still in their rooms. Don’t you think there’s too great a risk in that? What if the candle got knocked over? Would an elderly person be able to react fast enough to extinguish any flame that might result? Can’t you give them some of these flashlights instead?”

“Don’t you have an emergency generator that could be used to back up the emergency lighting? or to provide elevator operation? You know. You figure out what are the most important functions you need to get going and you put them on one circuit that automatically switches over to the generator when there’s a problem?”

“Have you alerted your on- call doctor? What if someone has a heart attack tonight. Or a panic attack? Or falls and breaks a bone”

There were many more things, like the emergency stairwells now entirely in the dark, no highlighting on the nosing of each riser; the handrailing hard to grasp and not continuous down the stairwell so that the landings were difficult for mobility impaired to negotiate.

I’d been in the property management business too long for these things to go unnoticed. How had this residence gotten past these safety requirements? Surely they had to comply. Or was the the thirty year old building “grandfathered”, not requiring upgrades until a major renovation was undertaken.

Noreen, still wearing her  visored cap even though a ray of sunshine was impossible, interrupted us. Noreen, you may remember, greets me daily with “Do I know you from somewhere?” with her quizzical eyebrows lifting and her perfectly mannered way, looking as if she had just jauntily left the tennis court at the Club. She was worrying about getting to the bathroom. On the main floor, there were only two – a man’s and a woman’s. They were in the centre of this vast room, just facing the rows of residents whose only occupation now was to watch what the other stranded residents were doing and to comment.

“I’ll help you,” I said. “Here, take my flashlight. Leave it on. There are no lights right now. This will give you enough light.”

“What will I do with this? ” she asked as she took the flashlight reluctantly from my hand and eyed it as if it were a foreign object with alien germs on it.

“It’s a flash light. You will need it in there,” I explained patiently. “There’s no electricity.”

“When will it come back on.”

“Not soon enough for you to wait. Go on,” I commanded, “take the flashlight and go in there.” And so she did.

Within seconds, she was back out again. “There’s no light in there.” She was both puzzled and a bit imperious, as if someone had failed her.

I explained again that the power was off and we would have to wait for the power company to restore power. I directed her back into the washroom and instructed her again on the flashlight.

She came back out minutes later saying with a puzzled look, “Someone must have left this behind in in the bathroom. Do you know who it could belong to?” as she held out her right hand dangling the flashlight aloft.

“It’s mine. I lent it to you,” I said with a touch of amusement. She just couldn’t remember.

“Oh!” she said and she handed it to me.

“She doesn’t need to go in there,” grumbled a lucid resident who had no patience for Noreen. Noreen looked as if she were a very healthy sixty, someone who had exercised effectively all her life. An aerobics instructor, one might guess, from her looks. Looking so young, she had no right to be confused or repetitive. But Noreen had Alzheimer’s and could not remember anything from minute to minute.

“She’s already been in there about seven times” continued the grumbler, loudly.
“It doesn’t really matter,” I soothed. “If she thinks she needs to, then that’s all that matters. She can’t remember what she does. She can’t remember anything. That’s why she’s here.” I said.

The grumbler was not getting any sympathy from my corner and she went back to her neighbour to continue on her discontent.

How did all this end, you might ask?
We went back up to mother’s room. It was about two thirty in the morning when the lights suddenly came back on. We all lifted our heads and looked about us. Tired as we were, we had adreniline from the night’s activity. I heard the elevators humming. They were operating again. I knew they would be full and I braved the stairwell again, going down to help bring back the sleepy, stranded residents.

When I got there to offer my services, there were only two residents in wheelchairs still to be sent aloft. In an inhabitual of spurt of efficiency, the staff had returned nearly a hundred residents to their rooms to resume their normal night within fifteen minutes.

I went back up to a dozy vigil in Mother’s room. We shooed little Ethel back to her room to get some sleep; and Otto took Heather home for a well deserved rest.


One Response to “Windstorm number eight”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    Good adventure description, as I am sure the more adventurous residents would have enjoyed the change of routine from the drudgery of their daily routines. Brought to my mind the movie Titanic, but without the extreme outcome. It is amazing how in late life we are brought back to being institutionalized, just as we were in our early years in school, and how much emergencies such as you describe here are so similar for the youngsters in school as in the case of fires, unexpected violent acts, etc.

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