To go home again

The sign outside Room 11 lists Barbara and Carolyn as its residents.

Barbara lays motionless and open-mouthed in the hospital bed closest to the door. The center bed is made with clean sheets and is separated from the third living space by a peach-colored hospital curtain.

On the other side of the curtain is another hospital bed placed along the wall. The head of the bed faces out the bay window opposite the room's door, letting in the afternoon sun. There are greeting cards hanging from the wall above the bed and two vases of flowers on the windowsill, leftovers from Mother's Day.

Here in her square of space, Carolyn Ainsworth sits in her wheelchair talking about a mission trip she made to Tonga, a string of islands in the South Pacific.

In 1991, during a presentation at her church, she learned about a school there that needed a water tank. She donated money and then made a trip with her sister to see the finished project.

Missionary work was something that Carolyn always wanted to do since she was young, but years before a friend gave her some advice.

"'Carolyn, they're just not ready for you,'" she says. "Because I am a character. And Americans don't know how to take me, so they wouldn't appreciate me."

Away from home

The sign outside Room 11 asserts Barbara and Carolyn as the room's occupants, but Carolyn says she doesn't live there.

"My son-in-law built me a cottage in the backyard of my daughter's house in Medford," Carolyn says. "It looks like something out of a fairy tale. It's a small home but it has everything. I wanted the highest ceilings and he consulted me about everything. All the rooms are open and big and there are no stairways. I really miss it and I'd like to be there."

Last August, Carolyn fell and broke her left leg. After a stay at the hospital, her Social Security began paying for stays at nursing homes in the area. Carolyn became a long-term resident at Linda Vista this spring and is re-learning to walk with the help of aides in the therapy department. An aide comes and conducts therapy with her every day. Sometimes she walks in the halls and sometimes outside on the facility's grounds.

"I stayed at several facilities before I came here and this one, in my opinion, is the best," she says. "Everyone seems to be glad to be working here. They bring joy and comfort even if the person can't speak or hear."

At Linda Vista, Carolyn finds joy and hope in a few different ways. One is through visitors. Because she is from the area, her daughter and friends visit her two or three times a week.

"They bring their lives and what happens to them to this strange environment and it lifts you out of here for a little while," Carolyn says. "Some people here never have visitors and I can't imagine that. It's really sad."

The other source of joy and hope is her relationship with Barbara.

"I read to the woman in the bed next to me who is in a semi-comatose state," Carolyn says. "I read, talk and pray. It's been two and a half years since the accident that made her this way and her brother and I think she has made progress. This gives me a fulfillment in my life because I am 80 years old. My body is junk, but my brain seems to be fine."

Life in Southern Oregon

Born in Medford, Carolyn grew up in the Applegate Valley. She still has crisp memories of a happy childhood.

"We walked maybe a half mile to school," Carolyn says. "One day it snowed and my dad said, 'My goodness, I'll drive you to school.' So he drove us and stopped at the bottom of the hill by the school. When I came out, snow fell off a branch and covered me up! My dad was just laughing and laughing."

Because the school bus route changed in the middle of her high school career at South Medford High School, Carolyn graduated from Grants Pass High School in 1944. After graduation, she went to work at a lumber company as a secretary. When she heard about a secretarial job at a bank in Grants Pass, she applied and got the job.

"That's all girls did at my age," she says. "In those days you didn't ask, 'Do I like it? Don't I like it?' It's just that if something else came up, it just seemed better."

She was married in 1946 to a man she had known since high school and left work when she became pregnant with her first child.

"You didn't keep working when you got pregnant," Carolyn says. "You just left the job."

Just six weeks after her son was born, she moved with her husband to Eugene so he could complete law school. Carolyn worked and supported her husband through school and had two more daughters.

After five years in Eugene, the family moved to Ashland, where Carolyn's husband was an attorney for a logging company and eventually joined a partnership.

When Carolyn's children were finally all in school, she enrolled at Southern Oregon College as a full-time student.

"I took all art and theater classes," she says. "I loved going to school. I was very active in the Music Department."

She's not kidding. When the head of the department asked her to help start a symphony, she pointed him in the right direction. It eventually became the Rogue Valley Symphony. She also helped the school retain and preserve the Swedenberg House, a historic building on the edge of campus, which is known as the Plunkett Center today.

In 1972, Carolyn graduated with a bachelor degree in fine arts.

Life today

Carolyn only worries about one thing.

"I fear falling," she says. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life in one of these places."

Her goals are just as simple.

"To go home," she says. "I need to keep myself as well as possible so I'm not a burden to my daughter. I have to resume being able to get into my bathroom, to prepare breakfast and lunch, get dressed &

all those things we don't even think about."

Despite the simple goal, the challenge is significant. Sometimes setbacks occur for Carolyn. Carolyn suffers from fibromyalgia, a chronic syndrome that sometimes leaves her with fatigue and bone and muscle pain.

"It just really wipes me out," Carolyn says. "I've had pain in my shoulder and knee and I haven't been sleeping well. I wasn't able to do my therapy today. I went into my bathroom this morning and it was a great struggle. The man who came to do the therapy was waiting and he took me outside and I just couldn't do it."

Changing times

The sign outside Room 11 now lists Barbara and Carolyn and Nellie as its residents.

A person now lies in the center bed between Barbara and Carolyn: a dark-haired woman who wiggles and makes noises through her nose and mouth.

"She came here yesterday," Carolyn says. "She's trying to settle in. She had a stroke. She's not used to using a button to get help so she just lies there and hollers. She's probably afraid and lonely. I didn't experience loneliness or fear, but I think others do."

The conversation returns to Carolyn, who shares her belief that this country could use another president like Jimmy Carter.

"I admire Jimmy Carter so much," she says. "He's just too nice. His administration was thoughtful and compassionate because he looked at it from being a helper. He goes to any country and never goes where the U.S. has already been. He doesn't let any prejudice in. He's his own thinker."

Carolyn says that her interest in politics came later in her life. In fact, she says she ignored the government's actions when she was younger. Now, politics are one of her favorite subjects of discussion for her daughter and son-in-law when they come to visit. She also has an opinion on the Bush administration.

"I don't think he has the least idea of how the average American lives," she says. "That's how limited he is in his thinking. Actually, I don't think the man has much to do with what is going on. All the people around him are wicked. The country is so rich with resources but they have all been pulled down. We can't take care of the people."

What would she like to see happen in our country?

"We need to get out of Iraq and out of everyone's business," Carolyn says. "We need more protection of the environment, of the rivers and lakes and heavens. They don't pay attention that we want out of the war."

Still an active voter, Carolyn is becoming a fan of Barack Obama.

"I like this guy," she says. "He's more of a Jimmy Carter person."

Neighbors

The sign outside Room 11 lists Barbara and Carolyn and Nellie as its residents. But today, Nellie's bed in the middle is empty and sheetless, exposing the hospital mattress's blue vinyl covering. The floor is freshly mopped with wet spots reflecting the sunlight coming in through the window.

Carolyn is not there, she is visiting a friend on the other end of the facility. She spends most of the day out of her room.

A few days later, she's ready to talk.

"She was the second one to die in that bed in a month," Carolyn says. "For the most part, nobody knows. Only the ones connected with the person would know."

Carolyn says that Nellie had only been eating to take her medication. The night before, two aides came in and brushed Nellie's hair and sat with her as she died.

"When a person gives up, so to speak," Carolyn says, "they've made up their mind to leave this place."

Carolyn says that one person was selected to prepare Nellie for the ambulance and had to straighten her bones because she had died in the fetal position. Then, Carolyn says, the men with the blue bag came in.

"You know, when you're right here every day and see the regression, it's a relief to me that they're going to that other place," Carolyn says. "It's a mixture of relief and sadness knowing what they've been through."

The routine

Despite the sadness, Carolyn has already settled back into her routine. which includes exercise group on Tuesday afternoons. Carolyn and 11 residents of Linda Vista have gathered in the dining hall for the exercise group.

The tables have been pushed out of the way and the residents make a circle in their wheelchairs in the open space.

Carolyn is along the wall by the kitchen door in a light pink, long-sleeved shirt and magenta pants. Instead of socks or slippers, she wears lime green suede loafers with rubber soles.

A nurse named Kim in floral scrub starts the exercise group by bounce-passing a large playground ball to all of the participants, who bounce it back to her. Another nurse named Regina joins the circle and encourages the residents through the exercises. Everyone is able to get it back to Kim, until she gets around to Bob, who is opposite Carolyn in the circle.

"Bob," Kim says. "Wake up, Bob."

Bob wakes and is ready to bounce the ball. He hits it more forcefully than the participants before him.

"Ooo, you're a little vicious today," Kim says.

Once around the circle, Kim leaves the dining room and returns with a doctor's stool. She then joins the circle between two residents and leads them through neck stretches and arm and wrist exercises. Carolyn opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue in concentration as she stretches. Kim tries to get the residents to count to 10 along with her, and gets enthusiastic and loud shouts to about five, but it gets quieter as they reach 10.

Regina helps Kim pass out stress-relief balls to the residents. Carolyn picks a green ball and Bob picks a fluorescent orange ball, the same color as the baseball cap he wears.

They squeeze the ball in their hand 20 times and Carolyn's knuckles whiten with every repetition. She gets faster and louder with her counting, as if to get it over with, and gets a laugh out of Regina.

The next exercise requires 2-foot weight poles, all with different colors corresponding with their weight up to five pounds. Some residents get pool noodles instead. Kim instructs them through rowing exercises with these poles, both forward and backward.

The nurses collect the poles in a cart and resume foot and leg exercises with the residents. When they are doing ankle rotations, Carolyn sits back in her wheelchair and closes her eyes. They then put their feet on the floor and march.

"Good job, Carolyn," Kim says.

Carolyn makes a surprised face and sheepishly goes back to marching.

When Kim instructs the residents to stretch their arms to their feet, Bill, wearing a black and white sweat suit, sets off his wheelchair alarm, a device that rings to notify nurses if a person has fallen out of their wheelchair. Kim reaches over and unplugs the wire temporarily.

At half time Regina brings a cart with water. She hands plastic glasses to each resident. Kim gets out a ring toss game. She puts the plastic rings around her arms like bracelets and places a wooden board with pegs in front of Bill. They all agree that they will keep score today. Bill starts throwing rings, which are fed to him by Kim.

Bill keeps hitting the center peg, worth the most points.

"He's in the groove," Kim says. "You're going to be hard to beat."

Bill ends up with 225 points.

Everyone else waits as the ring toss makes its way around the circle. Sometimes the nurse pushes it closer so the resident has a better chance of making it on the pegs. When it's Carolyn's turn she says, "I'll try it."

She throws a few rings and makes two on the pegs.

"That's some fancy shooting there, Tex," says Regina.

But it's not good enough. As the scores are tallied up Kim's prediction comes true. "With 225 points, our winner is Bill!"

Everyone claps and cheers at Bill. They celebrate with more cups of water.

"Would you like more water?" Regina asks Bob.

"Well, I never had any yet," Bob says, not remembering his first cup.

But the best part of exercise group comes at the very end because everyone gets a cookie.

Visitors

After calling a friend on the residents' phone in the hallway of the West Wing of Linda Vista, Carolyn sits nearby in her wheelchair and reads an issue of "Christian Science Sentient."

"I was just preparing to read to Barbara," Carolyn says. "It has stuff that is spiritual, which she likes. And by the way, I don't think it's stuff."

On this Saturday afternoon, Carolyn has a surprise visit by her daughter Linda, who brings her an iced coffee from The Human Bean. Linda, slim with freckled skin and red hair down to the middle of her back, joins Carolyn in the phone lounge.

And what kind of advice would Carolyn give to young people today?

"I don't think I'd give advice," Carolyn says.

"That's something I'd say I like most about my mom," Linda says. "She's a great listener."

Carolyn says she wouldn't force her opinion on anyone, nor would she give advice without being asked; she would, however, give different options if she were talking to someone with a dilemma. "If the circumstances are if I was having a conversation, I might give alternatives to your way of thinking and do it that way."

Carolyn talks about the alternatives she found in her own life.

She used to get migraines. Then she got a divorce. And then she moved to California.

Her intentions were to get a master's degree in theater at San Francisco State University, but she needed a way to make a living. She became obsessed with batiking, a art form where wax and dyes are used to create designs on fabrics.

"I was pretty close to getting a master's," she says, "but I'm glad I did what I did."

She moved to Hawaii and started selling her batik clothing and scarves in hotel gift shops in Kona. She was able to open her own store in Hilo and ran it right up until she moved to be closer to her daughter.

"I was actually delivering my last pieces in Hilo the day I moved to the mainland," Carolyn says.

She doesn't miss it.

"You know, I don't really because I am not one to miss things in that term," she says. "I look back from time to time. I find it would be hard to live there now."

Now life is about getting better, moving back home and continuing to hope for her roommate's progress.

Carolyn and Barbara's brother think they see a change in Barbara.

"Her eyes are open and they follow him when he walks around the room," Carolyn says. "She smiles and groans and moans, stretches. We know she's making progress."

Carolyn knows Barbara's brother, her only sibling, is concerned about Barbara, but he may be too hopeful.

"I think he was expecting more than what was reasonable after two years of almost nothing," she says. "He's kind of resolved that it's going to take a long time."

But Barbara's recovery remains one of Carolyn's biggest hopes.

"I hope that she'll begin to talk and wake up."

Not all residents at Linda Vista are like Barbara. Half are rehabilitating like Carolyn and the others are dependent on the Linda Vista staff for their wellbeing.

With most residents aging and over the age of 80, Carolyn finds herself among residents who are dealing with dementia and Alzheimer's.

"I have been here four months and you know prior six months in other facilities and I guess I have a compassion for humanity," Carolyn says. "It doesn't bother me too much. I try to accept people they way they are. If they get lost in fantasyland, then that's their thing."

A day like any other

Every week, Carolyn gets her hair done by Colleen in the Linda Vista Beauty Shop. Colleen comes and finds Carolyn either in her room or around the halls of Linda Vista and pushes her into the little room that has a barbershop pole outside the window.

She shampoos Carolyn's hair &

since she only gets a shower twice a week &

puts it up in curlers, dries it and combs it out.

On this stuffy late afternoon, Carolyn is sitting in a red salon chair in front of a vanity mirror with Velcro curlers in her hair. The two talk about the weather and the heat as the time nears for Carolyn to be pushed under the dryer.

Colleen gets a nurse named Cathy to help Carolyn back in her wheelchair and Colleen backs her into the spot under the salon dryer that looks like a space helmet.

Carolyn's face gets a little pinker and breathes a sigh from the heat. After about 10 minutes, Colleen pushes her out from under the dryer. She stands behind Carolyn in her wheelchair and brushes out the tight curls in a fluffy, soft style.

Smiling, Carolyn rolls forward to get some air outside the salon's door. Since dinner is in about a half hour, she makes her way around the corner to the dining room.

On a Wednesday at 12:10 p.m., Jill comes to do physical therapy with Carolyn.

She knocks and comes into Carolyn's portion of the room. Since Carolyn says she's ready to go, Jill helps her put on her green suede slip-on shoes and puts a karate-like belt around her waist. Carolyn edges herself to the end of the bed and pushes a button of the head of the bed that lowers her feet to the floor.

"I'm kind of excited to start walking," Jill says. "How about you?"

"Let's do it," Carolyn says.

Together, Jill and Carolyn use their energy to transfer Carolyn from the side of her bed to her wheelchair. Once seated, Carolyn adjusts her floral housecoat and Jill puts a black Velcro brace on Carolyn's right knee.

Jill pushes a walker into the hallway. Carolyn follows closely in her wheelchair. The two chat about an African drumming group that Jill performs in and discover they have a mutual acquaintance named Marilyn. In the hall, Jill positions the walker in front of the seated Carolyn.

"Shall we?" Jill asks.

With a deep breath, Carolyn pushes with her hands on the arms of the wheelchair, causing the muscles in her forearms to become taut. Gaining momentum, she stands and braces herself on the handles of the walker in front of her. Then she starts to walk. Jill follows behind with the wheelchair to catch her if need be.

"Good," Jill says. "Excellent steps."

Carolyn has made it from Room 11's door to her neighbor's door and passes it by one or two steps. At this point, she needs a break.

When Carolyn's ready again, they take off farther down the hall. She again passes another neighbor's door and sits to rest. As Carolyn waits in the wheelchair, Jill leaves to get something to measure Carolyn's distance.

Jill returns with what looks like a green broomstick with a bicycle training wheel at the end that she pushes on the ground to measure the distance of both walks. The first is 25 feet, the second, 22.

"That's great Carolyn," Jill says. "Twenty-two is really good."

"This far I can certainly get out of my bedroom and bathroom and into my kitchen," Carolyn says raising her eyebrows. "My house is under 800 square feet but I tell you it is spacious-looking and feeling. So this is good."

Home

The first days of fall descended on the Valley abrupty this week, bringing snow to the hills and a chill to our bones. Room 11 is colder too, even as Carolyn's life is filled with the sunlight and warmth of accomplishment. For today, Linda Vista officials report, Carolyn is no longer living there. She's home in Medford, having met the one goal that mattered most.

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