Live a Good Life in a Nursing Home

One nursing home resident dictates a first-person account to her loved ones about her decision to enter a nursing home and how she’s navigated “living a good life” there.
By Sandra J. Gaffney
October 2012
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My name is Sandra. In 1994, at the age of fifty, I entered my first nursing home for long-term care. While it was diffi­cult to give up living in my own home, as time passed I developed strategies for leading a meaningful life in the nursing home set­ting.
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Making Myself at Home in a Nursing Home (Vanderbilt University Press, 2012) by Sandra Gaffney is the personal account of the author’s long-term care in a nursing home after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Over 16 years, Sandra lived in nursing homes in Florida, Virginia and Minnesota.  During this time she became an acute observer and strategist about how to “live a good life” and navigate day-to-day issues such as how to furnish the room, talk to staff and understand nursing home culture. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1, “About Myself.” 

My name is Sandra. In 1994, at the age of fifty, I entered my first nursing home for long-term care. While it was diffi­cult to give up living in my own home, as time passed I developed strategies for leading a meaningful life in the nursing home set­ting. It occurred to me that others might benefit from my experi­ences and observations. Also, writing this book has provided me with a mental challenge and an opportunity to feel productive. When I first started thinking about the book, both my mother and my longtime friend Ellen encouraged me and helped me to develop a list of topics to write about.

My primary focus is to assist future and present nursing home residents to lead the fullest lives possible while living in a nursing home. Hopefully, as residents and family members read about my strategies and ideas, they will be prompted to develop their own strategies. My secondary focus is to offer a resident’s perspective to present and potential nursing home professionals and policy makers.

My interest in writing this book comes from my educational and professional background. I have master’s and specialist de­grees in college counseling. I had many experiences that influ­enced how I viewed nursing home life and contributed to my ability to write this book. I worked for thirteen years at a commu­nity college. During twelve of them, I did general counseling. One of my special responsibilities was advising international students. That experience has helped me to better relate to the multicultural staff in my three nursing homes. I coordinated the writing of a student handbook, as well as wrote many other counseling-related materials. The last year that I worked, I was the director of the Career Clinic, a program for adults wishing to change careers. Writing about my nursing home experiences and observations is a natural continuation of my professional activities. I hope that the reason my book appeals to readers is because the writer is some­one who experiences nursing home living rather than someone who just observes the experiences of others.

My Adult Life before My Illness  

All my life I have been a busy person from a long line of busy women. There was never a time that I could not occupy myself. While I was never athletic, I considered myself to be energetic and active. I have also always been more comfortable helping others than receiving help. My profession was a helping profession.

In my early adult years, I enjoyed my work and was involved with the establishment of the statewide professional association for college counselors and student personnel workers. My family life was full and I had many friends. I had a lifelong love for playing the piano.

I first asked my parents for piano lessons when I was three years old. I did not know until I was an adult that they actually tried to find someone to teach me then. When I was young, piano teachers would not accept students until they were eight years old and knew how to read. For my eighth birthday, my parents rented a piano and arranged for me to take lessons. When the trial period was over, it was obvious that I wanted to continue playing so they bought me a lovely spinet piano. Beginning with my junior high years, I played the alto saxophone in the school band. I continued playing in the band through the time I received my master’s de­gree. Coincidentally, my college band director was hired as band director at the community college where I worked. When he es­tablished the band, I played in it until he had enough musicians from among the student body. Other activities that I enjoyed were reading, gardening, knitting and other forms of needlework, cook­ing, visiting museums, traveling, and attending concerts and plays. Of these activities, I am still able to read books and enjoy visiting museums and attending plays. The most difficult activity to give up was playing the piano.

During the years that I was able to play the piano, I also en­joyed listening to music. After I lost the ability to play, I found that rather than bringing me pleasure, listening made me feel sad by reminding me of my loss. This has been something that others have had difficulty understanding. Often people think that listen­ing to music could be a substitute for playing it. This is not the case for me. I do enjoy an occasional concert with a friend, primarily for the social aspect and the opportunity to go out. I actually think that I sensed music with my hands as well as my ears. Listening made me want to play more.


It was very difficult for me to understand why it was that Mom could not still enjoy listening to music. I would often try to convince Mom that she needed a radio so that she could listen to talk radio or classical music. At some point, as an adult, I finally accepted what she told me, but never quite understood. It helped me to understand after reading her words in this book. It is a reminder of the importance of listening to your loved one rather than pushing them toward something that you think would be best for them. —Amy 


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Making Myself at Home in a Nursing Home, published by Vanderbilt University Press, 2012. 


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