By Karen Gonzol, MSN, RN. Karen is an assistant professor in the division of nursing at Shenandoah University in Virginia. This is her first post for AJN.
Mother had been placed on hospice care for her congestive heart failure. She settled somewhat reluctantly into the nursing home and waited for the end.
As she discovered that the wait was going to be much longer than she’d planned, she decided to go on with living. Her room was on the first floor, with a window facing out into the courtyard. The staff loved her, and she loved to tease them. She made an effort to learn their names, and when she couldn’t remember she made up nicknames, such as “Bow Lady” for the assistant who always wore a huge bow to tie back her hair. One July day she began asking, “Do you see those monkeys in the tree out there?”
Whichever unwitting staff member looked out the window and said, “No, I don’t see any monkeys,” Mother would quickly reply, “neither do I!”
She asked one of her favorite caregivers, Luanne, if she saw the monkeys. Luanne went to the desk and reported that Mother was seeing monkeys in the trees. “Have they changed her medications?” Jerry, the med nurse, promptly came to the room to talk to Mother. She asked him about the monkeys. He said, “No, they’re zebras.” They had a good laugh, and Jerry went back to the desk and declared Mother to be OK.
“Dante, do you see the monkeys in my trees?” The activities director, trained to be polite and not contradict the residents, said, “Well, they must be really high in the trees.” Dante didn’t want to say she didn’t see any. Finally Mother had to say her punch line, “Well, I don’t see any monkeys in those trees!”
At the team care-planning conference held that week, Mother decided to tell her monkey joke again. My sister held her breath, waiting to see how Sister Anne (the director of nursing) and Mr. Engle (the executive administrator) would each respond. There were no trees for them to look at, but Mother pulled off the joke, and they laughed. Someone asked, “Is there anything normal in that room?” Mother replied, “Me!”
About a day later, Dante met my sister in the hallway with a grin on her face and told her there was a surprise in Mother’s room. Entering the room, she saw it—an inflatable monkey on the outside of Mother’s window looking in, waving at Mother.
Over the months, that monkey, “Chester,” became a frequent source of conversation and delight. He was there peering into the room as soon as the blinds were opened in the morning. Monkeys of various sorts began to multiply on the windowsill inside, while Chester looked on faithfully.
Eventually, it grew colder outside, and one day we discovered Chester wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Finally it got too cold even for plastic inflatable monkeys with hooded sweaters. A staff member took pity on him, and Chester moved to the inside of the window. Now he began to change with the seasons, wearing a bright red bell for Christmas. New Year’s Eve brought him his very own party hat, a necklace, and a noisemaker tucked into the pocket on the jacket.
When Mother died in February, we lovingly packed Chester along with her other belongings and took him home with us. The stuffed monkeys she had accumulated were distributed to the grandchildren and her beloved great-grandson. Each now had a special reminder of grandma and her monkeys. Chester went home to live with my sister, who had spent so many hours with Mother in those last months.
Now Chester sits on his perch, keeping an eye on my sister. He still wears his jacket and a necklace made by a young daughter of a staff member, whom Mother had befriended.
Seeing Chester again reminded me of the caregivers who knew and loved my mother. They treated her with dignity and respect—even when they thought she was “seeing” monkeys—a respect I have tried to teach and model during my career as a nursing instructor. The willingness of the caregivers to engage with Mother in her playfulness brightened what were otherwise long and repetitive days.
Thanks, Mother and Chester, for showing us how to go on living and laughing while gracefully waiting.