How life has changed for the mentally ill
|Note: To be submitted to "Words from the Wise"
Elderly people often speak of the “good old days”, when they were young and life was not so fast paced. While I remember them well, and many things were better, there was also a dark side to them. This is a view of several of them that I will never forget.
Being born in the mid-l940’s, I have always been proud to be part of one of the largest groups in history..a babyboomer! World War II had just ended and life in the United States was exceptionally good. My father owned and operated his own clothing store in the heart of our small city, Sheboygan, WI. And... being the youngest of two children, I was never wanting for anything.
Like life itself, my school years seemed to fly by. Not being ready to leave the comforts of home, I attended a local college to pursue a degree in social work. It was during that time I landed my first job…as an attendant in a large 3-story complex which housed the mentally ill, operated by the county.
This would be the most eye-opening job of my entire career, and one which changed me forever! Looking back, I am totally appalled at the lack of humanity and dignity shown to the mentally challenged back in the l960’s. I also realize, with a shudder, how dangerous it was to work there! Had some of the patients not "covered my back" I would have suffered serious injury when the occasional patient would come up behind me with a chair. Back then there were no pagers to wear or any quick way to alert staff to an incident.
My schedule consisted of going to school during the day and working full time on swing shift at the home for the mentally ill. Each floor housed 80 residents (40 woman on one wing and 40 men on the other wing.) After my 3-day training was completed, I would be alone on the women’s floor with the door locked. It was scary.
The treatment for mental illness at that time consisted mainly of medicine. Heavy doses of strong, mind-altering drugs were handed out per doctors orders. Being alone on the floor, it was my job to assemble the med cart with it’s plastic cups full of multi-colored pills. When all was ready, I would holler “Med Time!” and station myself by the cart while patients, many already in a stupor, slowly made their way to swallow yet more pills.
Showering of these 40 patients were another atrocity. In my naivety, I didn’t question my job at the time, but I certainly do now. Three nights a week, just after supper, my forty charges lined up at the hallway door which led to the showers in the basement, towel and washcloth in hand. Down the stairs we would troop until we arrived at the huge, one-room shower filled with large, industrial sized shower heads attached to the ceiling. Everyone showered together at the same time. There was no such thing as privacy.
The only form of entertainment these people enjoyed was an occasional movie night, held in the dreary basement of the complex. I find it sad to realize how absent physical activity was. To basically do nothing but sit, watch television, sleep, or knit, as some of people could, seriously had a negative effect on them. We often hear the adage, “Use it or lose it!” Nothing rings more true than a hospital filled with mental patients who have nothing to do!
Having been a social worker in Michigan for five years, I longed for a change. I was elated when I learned of a local house for sale that was being used as a home for the aged or mentally challenged. I anxiously made an appointment to see the house and meet the residents.
Three women lived in this house…three scared women because they knew that their caregiver for the past ten years was selling her house and moving away! The residents who lived here were a bed-ridden, but very alert woman in her 90’s, a pleasant “grandma” type lady in her 50’s and one younger woman in her 30’s who was still quite mobile. She was the mother of two sons but because of her mental illness, she was incapable of caring for them.
The price of the house was quite low, so I quickly bought it and moved in. I thoroughly enjoyed the ability to stay home and work at the same time. The pay I received for these women was ridiculously low, even when compared to the wage scale back then, but it meant I could enjoy a more relaxing, laid-back life and allowed me more time for the one love of my life.. writing! The women and I came to know each other quickly and we were all the picture of one happy family.
A neighbor lady was found who would occasionally take over for me when I needed to be gone, and all was well…until a year later, a code inspector paid us a visit. After thoroughly checking the house, he determined it needed changes and additions that would amount to way more than I could ever afford. I felt numb after he left. Fighting "city hall" has always been synonymous with "losing!"
Even though I was being paid by the Department of Social Services to care for these women, I was told it was “my house” and “my burden” to get the changes made or they would simply move the women to another house. No thought for how these women might feel about it all. No thought about rocking their security. I was angry and broken-hearted at the same time.
In the end, they were all moved against their will, and I was left with a house I could no longer afford to keep up because I no longer had an income. Not knowing what to do, the Army recruiter who I had been dating, had no trouble convincing me to join the Army and “see the world”…which I did from August 1974 to August of 1977.
On the mental health scene, nothing is the same any longer. Everything is better! The old county hospitals that were used to warehouse the mentally ill are history! Humanity has finally caught up to realizing the mentally ill are people who need full and productive lives, as much as is possible.
Group homes do still exist but overall, they are well run at standards set by the government, with adequate supervision and plenty of activity for those who live there. For the loving families of those who are mentally challenged and cannot live alone, they would heartily agree that for them, this will be known as the era of the “good old days!”
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