Several weeks ago, I came across the Nursing Home Card Project on Instagram. I was intrigued right away, so I contacted Rachel Bennett, the founder, to learn more. I recently met with Rachel over the phone to discuss what inspired her to begin this project and learn how to get involved.
RCG: Hi Rachel! Such a pleasure to meet you! Please tell me about yourself and what led you to start this project.
Rachel: Hi! So nice to meet you, too! My mother is the inspiration behind this project. At the young age of 55, she was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. At that time, we were a family of two. I am an only child, and my father passed away from cancer while I was in college.
RCG: Wow- that must have been so hard!
Rachel: Yes. The hardest part is that early Alzheimer’s disease is usually way more aggressive than the more common late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition declined rapidly. As a young woman, I was very responsible for her care. I was living in Manhattan and would take the train to Glens Falls every weekend to see her. A few years into her disease, I began to notice that she was becoming increasingly forgetful. Sometimes she couldn’t remember important details, like if she turned the stove off. Also, it was becoming harder for her to get dressed.
When she was 59, I made the tough decision to take away her independent living. At that point, she began living in an assisted living facility and remained there for three years.
When her disease progressed further, she moved into skilled nursing care. At that time, she began a seven-year sojourn in skilled nursing by staying at three different nursing homes.
All of this was challenging. Working with Medicaid was very difficult. I can truly say that God took care of her and me.
RCG: What happened to your mom?
Rachel: She passed away three years ago of Alzheimer-related complications. I was only 38 when she passed. It feels like she left this earth way too young, but now I can see it was the perfect time. She was ready to go home.
RCG: Can you tell me more about your mom? What was she like?
Rachel: She had an incredible ability to focus on the beauty in everyday life. She had such a positive outlook throughout. She was my soulmate on this earth. We shared a bond that’s hard to put into words.
RCG: Wow, that is so beautiful. Your story is so touching.
Rachel: Thank you. Through my experience helping to navigate my mother’s nursing home experience, I learned how to advocate for her. I was educated on the brokenness of the nursing home system in our country. People in the US equate nursing homes to prisons for a good reason.
Nursing homes are horribly understaffed. The staff is also very underpaid. It is a very corrupt system.
On top of that, residents experience substandard living conditions. There isn’t enough lighting; the fluorescent lighting is harsh. And the scent of the nursing home is not welcoming for the residents. Residents get wheeled in and wheeled out of rooms. They have no say over the food or the drink they are served. They are left powerless, with no money or freedom to ask for improved conditions.
With the Covid-19 crisis, the residents at nursing homes had to be isolated. They couldn’t sit in communal dining rooms in an effort to minimize contagion. I feel, as a society, we didn’t acknowledge the impact.
During my time in nursing homes, I found myself truly heartbroken by the loneliness. Even pre-Covid, from 2009 to 2016, I found that people were extremely lonely when visiting my mom. I notice that many didn’t have anyone come to visit, sit with them, look into their eyes.
I’ve seen it. I’ve seen their sorrow. I wish I could do so much more. I wish I could reform policy. I’ve met with legislators, but the truth is that people are all mystified. It’s a broken system that I’m not able to fix.
But there is something I can do. I can bring awareness. I want people to feel remembered. Sending a card means so much to nursing home residents. People can hang them on the walls and feel loved and acknowledged.
RCG: I want to prepare some cards. What words should I write on them?
Rachel: Something simple, like “Hello, special someone. Remember that you are beautiful and that you are loved. I hope you have a happy day!”
RCG: That is so sweet.
Rachel: Over the years, I brought so many cards and plants. My mom always enjoyed seeing the cards on the wall.
RCG: I remember working in nursing homes. I was very sad to see one person have a wall full of cards, and sometimes their roommate had none.
Rachel: We all desire to be seen by others. Sending the card is a way of saying, “I see you, and I care about you. You are important.” By sending cards, we are bringing joy from the outside into the home.
RCG: Can you tell me something more about your mom? She seemed like such a uniquely positive and hopeful person.
Rachel: Yes, she was. In fact, one of her favorite sayings was, “Keep your eye upon the donut, not upon the hole.” She was a positive spirit all of her life.
RCG: How can people best support your mission?
Rachel: You can find out more by looking at the site, www.caringbycard.com.
RCG: Thank you so much Rachel for meeting today! I will start working on some cards for your project this week!
Rachel Bennett is a theater producer, running her own theater company. She was named NY1’s New Yorker of the Week to recognize her commitment to lifting the spirits of those living in nursing homes.