Guilty

When I first laid eyes on Joseph Zupnik three and a half years ago, he was late for the Family Council meeting at my mother’s nursing home, Focus Otsego.

“LATE!” I jotted into my little notebook. Not a good first impression.

He walked in the door and I barely noticed him. I thought he was a late-arriving family member, but he walked right over to the seat next to the administrator.

Joseph Zupnik was tall and thin, the kind of person who folds when he sits down and unfolds when he stands again. His pants were about an inch too short at the ankles and an inch too high at the waist. The muted tones of his plaid shirt were understated and unassuming, like he was. Quiet, mild, articulate. And young.

Almost immediately people started demanding answers from him about staff shortages and retention of the remaining staff. The rumor was that Focus cut salaries by 15% across the board when they took over. The fact was that staff had left in droves.

Joseph sat, calmly folded in his chair, legs folded as he crossed them at the knee, manicured hands folded across his knee, body folded somewhere between slouched and erect. He seemed so relaxed.

And he calmly fielded the questions and spoke of industry standards and union negotiations.

I wanted to say that no one cares about industry standards. These are our parents, not statistics.

Others spoke up though, and talked of how much better this place was than other ones.

And I wanted to say to them that I don’t want relatively good care for my mother. I want the best care.

He stayed with us for an hour and a half. Listening, responding, listening some more.

He knew his stuff. He fully understood the business end of this industry.

He was clinical and dispassionate — a walking statistics book.

Yesterday, Joseph Zupnik pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person.

Seven other charges against him were dismissed.

His slap on the wrist includes community service. I’d like him to work as an aide in a nursing home for the same number of years he owned nursing homes.

And I’d like him to live on the same pay as the aides who had worked under him.

To me, that would be justice.

And mercy.

He would be a better man for it.


A little background and a final thought.

In the early 1970’s a new building combining the Otsego County Home and the Otsego County Infirmary was built down the road from where I grew up. It was renamed The Meadows, and I remember visiting there with my father when I was young. I believe he was the Medical Director.

When I took a year off from college in 1979, I worked as a nurse’s aide there. Everyone should work in a nursing home at some point to learn compassion (if that can be learned) and to experience how hard and thankless the work is.

Both of my grandmothers and one grandfather were residents at The Meadows.

My father-in-law was a resident of The Meadows when the new building, The Manor, was built. He was among the first crop of residents at The Manor.

My mother lived at The Manor. She was there when it changed hands.

When the county decided to sell, my father had been on the task force charged with finding a buyer.

We had ties to the Otsego County nursing home no matter what its name was.

In the end, the legislators voted to sell to the highest bidder instead of the most qualified purchaser. It was more of an “unloading” than understanding what an important part of this rural area that county facility served. They simply wanted to be rid of it. In my mind those legislators who voted to sell The Manor to Focus Corporation (and Joseph Zupnik) also bear some culpability.

 

Unsung and Under-appreciated

That morning, I had taken my father to a doctor’s appointment.

When we got back to the house, the answering machine was flashing. The message was from the nursing home. “Please call.”

My mother had had an incident. She was being taken to the emergency room.

In retrospect, that day was the beginning of the end.

After my mother passed away, my father wanted to unravel the incident. The information given us was vague. The diagnostician side of my father needed to categorize. The husband side needed to understand.

We walked down the long corridor to the nurses’ station on my mother’s unit. So many people offered their condolences. My mother would be missed.

The head nurse on the unit told us her story, but it was a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) who had been with my mother when it happened.

We tracked down the CNA.

CNAs are the unsung heroes of nursing homes. A good CNA is worth a thousand administrators. I was relieved to see that the CNA who had been caring for my mother that morning was one of the best.

I still remember the first time that I met her. I had come down to feed my mother while my father was away.

“Mom, you look really nice today,” I had commented. Her hair was brushed. Her shirt was a pretty one that fit well. Her glasses were around her neck on a chain.

“I got her dressed this morning,” chimed a voice from the other side of the dining room. A petite 50-ish woman was smiling at me, pleased that I had noticed.

“Thank you,” I told her.

Over the next several months, I recognized this CNA, not only when I ran into her in the dining area, but I could often tell when she had been the one to care for my mother. She always paid attention to the details.

This was the CNA who was with my mother when she had her “incident.”

the flowered shirt

the flowered shirt

“I had laid out her clothes for the day,” she told us, “the brown slacks and the flowered shirt.”

I knew the ones.

“I was rubbing lotion on her legs and feet. She always seemed to enjoy that,” she said.

Yes, I could picture the whole thing.

“Suddenly, she gasped and drew her arms up like this,” she said, demonstrating by clenching her fists and bringing them towards her chin.

“I summoned help immediately,” she said, “but your mom was unresponsive.”

“I’m so, so sorry for your loss,” she said multiple times.

And I know she meant it.

So many times I have looked back on that day and whispered a prayer of thanks that she was the one. My mother was in the best earthly hands while on her way into the best heavenly hands

Every time I hear about the proposed wage of $15/hour for fast food workers, I bristle inside.

CNAs don’t get paid that much.

And they don’t have time to lobby about it.

They are too busy taking care of our loved ones.

Mary

About once a week I still try to go see I-can-do-it Mary. I wrote about her in “I Can Do It” and Leave Me Alone.

My father likes visiting people at the nursing home so I drive him over. While he’s visiting Linda, the lady who cuts hair, or Savannah, the bank window lady, I go down to Mary’s room.

She usually has her blanket over her head. When I see her like that, I just whisper a prayer for her in my heart.

The other day, though, her room was empty. The sun was out and I found her sleeping the sunshine of the courtyard. She loves being outside.

I stood beside her and laid my hand on her arm but she didn’t stir. When I removed my hand to leave, her eyes fluttered open.

“I brought you a present, Mary,” I told her. “It’s in your room.”

A dish garden with yellow tulips, miniature daffodils, and a pink hyacinth had beckoned to me from the flower kiosk at the grocery store. When my mother was alive, I tried to bring her flowers occasionally because I knew that she loved them. This week, I purchased some for Mary.

“Oh!” she said, reaching her good hand out to me. “Say, say, I can do it!”

“I can do it, Mary,” I said. I put my hand in hers and she kissed it.

“I love you,” Mary said.

“I love you, too,” I told her.

“Would you like to go see the flowers?” I asked and she nodded her head vigorously in response.

She hooked her good foot under her bad one and began pulling herself along using that one good foot.

“One. Two. Three. Four,” she said, counting her pulls. I had never heard her count before and she watched me to make sure I was seeing and hearing this new miracle.

By the time she reached “Thirteen,” she was at the door.

Clearly thirteen has gotten a bad rap. It was a beautiful number when she said it.

When we got to her room and she saw the garden, she said, “Wow! Wow!” She turned the dish slowly so she could see if from all angles, then she reached up and pulled me to her in a bear hug.

“I love you,” she said again.

“I have to go find my father,” I told her. “He’s visiting upstairs. Do you want to go back to the courtyard?”

She nodded.

As we walked back to the courtyard, suddenly Mary stopped. She grabbed my hand and looked at me. ” I en-,” she began, and then she frowned.

“I en-,” she said again.

I waited.

She frowned in frustration, then she waved her hand in the air, erasing the words that lingered there unfinished. “I can do it,” she said quietly.

When I got her settled back in the sun, she gave me one last bear hug. “I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too,” I told her.

 

*****

This is a video I took of Mary singing to my mother.