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The Great Roommate Wars

This is chapter eight of a new book by Grace Rudolph, Ice Floes and Polar Bears: An Inside Look at Nursing Homes. You may purchase this book of nursing home articles by clicking here.

During orientation sessions with new employees I ask them to close their eyes, breathe deeply and picture the smallest room in their home. Then I ask them to imagine sharing it with a stranger who screams, rummages, or needs to be turned and toileted every two hours throughout the night. I can see from the raised eyebrows that I've planted the seeds for a few restless nights.

Then I ask them to imagine a hospitalization for a fractured hip, a transfer to a nursing home for rehab, an unexpected CVA (cardiovascular accident), and the sudden realization that a short-term stay has turned into a long-term stay. Unable to verbalize their needs, they trust their closest friend to know what personal items should be brought in to 'cozy up' their new home: the 'home' they will be sharing with a screamer, a rummager, or a person who requires care throughout the night.

By this time I've either crashed a few health care careers or, prepared them for the Great Roommate Wars.

My first job as a nursing home social worker involved driving fifty miles from my driveway at home to the driveway at the nursing home. A trip that included intimidating traffic rotaries and a spin over a bridge spanning the Cape Cod Canal. Terrified of heights I listened to classical music on the way to work, and to jazz on the way home. In between I mediated upheavals between roommates. The nursing home was on one level, had a Hawaiian chef who baked his own bread and pies, and a resident who sat by the front door and greeted staff and visitors alike with a snappy salute and a cheerful, "This is the best restaurant and hotel anywhere on the Cape." Either two or three residents shared the rooms. I was amazed that there were few problems with the people who shared three to a room. Even the person in the center bed seemed content.

Two to a room? Different story. I still haven't figured out why three people can co-exist without all out combat while two people will attempt to run each other over with wheelchairs or land blows with their walkers. This is MY side of the room that's YOURS! Go your way! Stay out of my space and my stuff! I take no prisoners!

Ask any nursing home social worker and they will tell you the phrase, "Could you come up and see Mrs. Longterm? She's having problems with her roommate," induces ticks and twitches. Countries go to war over territorial issues. So do roommates. I would rather talk someone out of projectile vomiting while standing at the foot of their bed than to have to deal with roommate problems.

I've tried to sit down with both parties and help them verbalize their issues and reach a truce. This usually begins well but escalates into loud, overlapping conversations that begin and end with, "This is MY room. I don't want to move. Make HER move."

I've tried to increase autonomy by engaging people in potential room changes but "the bathroom's on the wrong side of the room," or "she plays her TV too loud," or "he opens the window after lunch," or "she shuts the door at night," or the roommate has an encampment of visitors passing around food, family photos and the flu.

Some roommates are compatible. I remember two pleasantly confused gentlemen who shared a room and a common bond of non-compliance. When approached about taking showers they would take turns being the spokesman. One would say, "Nah, I'm not takin' a shower," toss his thumb in the direction of his roommate and say, "and neither is he." The other would smile broadly and shake his head in agreement. Hell no I won't go.

There are times when residents want to share another room. Together A change of venue, even on the same unit but on the other side of the hall, is good for the soul. Often these people have been together for years. As one gentle lady whispered in my ear, "Sometimes she drives me wild but, you know, she's my friend."

Sometimes the answer is there is no answer. Home away from home is never quite the same as home. And making the best of it can be an ongoing battle to accept life and not be defeated by independence lost and dreams unmet.

Perhaps the best that we can offer is empathetic compassion.

Today, right now, write down what you think is the most treasured possession of the person you love. Tonight, without showing them the paper, ask what that possession would be. The answer might surprise you. It might induce a deeper sense of empathy towards residents whose homes have become a shared room with a roommate who needs evening care, who screams, or who might rummage and remove your treasures and your memories of independence lost.


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