Grandpa is trapped in The Matrix

Everybody’s travelling and I’m the only relative in town for Grandpa, who’s been in the dementia unit of a nursing home for the last few years. He had some teeth taken out last week, suddenly spiked a 103 fever and they were going to take him to the hospital, except he started to respond to antibiotics, so they didn’t.

Today, during lunch I went to visit him, see how’s he doing, raise a flag so they know there’s still somebody who cares for him.

They all know him there, and most don’t like him. He’s a retired NYPD Chief, 6 foot four or so, very strong, very mean on occasion, and very aggressive. Before he went into the dementia unit he attacked a black orderly who was delivering a meal because he thought he was casing the place.

He is, or was, a bigot, while he was babysitting he gave me the worst beating of my life when I was 12. I still have scars on my back from his belt and on my lip from his boot.

He’s taught me a lot about the nature of humanity, and, of Greatness. Grandpa was a great man as few humans are. Immensely terrible and evil in his failings, and wondrously good in his deeds, and generosity. He was reviled by his own force when he stood up against corruption, testifying against his fellow officers. My mother remembers the death threats. We have a scrapbook full of articles concerning his bravery. He was both shot and stabbed in the line of duty. When he was retired I saw him risk his life to save a drowning boy, and he used to take me fishing in the Bay on his boat. He kept that boat for many years when he had no further interest just to take me, and some of my finest memories are of our times on it.

He was great and terrible, but never small and petty, to me a legendary figure out of Greek mythology, a living object lesson on the duality of man.

So, as you can see, I’m somewhat conflicted.

Today I went to visit his shell.

To get to the “Whispering Pines Unit” which is what they call the dementia ward. I had to walk through assisted living. My journey would be like Dante’s descent into the inferno.

Here is where we store our old and sick, so that we can pretend there is no suffering and pain in our society. Assisted living is called “Quiet Trees” or somesuch and is full of benign vampires. It’s all ok and pretty dignified, but as you walk through the ward all these old frail folk cannot help but drain your very life force. They are like vaccums sucking something out of you with their very presence, and it starts the moment you open the door and smell… …old people.

I walk through hurriedly and descend to the next level of hell. The nursing unit is called “Whispering Bushes” or somesuch and here the unwilling inhabitants require full time care. They are very sick or very fragile or both. Some are cursed to the point where their minds are still intact, others have gone insane or fallen into some kind of fugue. Every time I walk through someone call out “please, help me,” at least once. Usually a different person. This is where my grandmother went insane from despair and died two years ago. The life force sucking here is like a wind, and I imagine that every time I walk through I must be drained of at least a day of life.

Being there is like holding your breath too long.

I make a left at “Synergistic Chrysanthemums” cross “Restful Mysoginistic Oaks,” and “Peacefully Medicated Acres” and arrive at the dementia ward, and hit the button to gain entrance. Once in the doors lock and you must enter a keycode to exit. The combination is so simple it’s impossible to forget and they never change it. It’s more than enough to outwit the most able inhabitant.

It doesn’t stop them from trying though and quite a few oldsters lurk by the door and try to escape as I enter, but they’re much to slow and confused and the door closes before they can even get close.

Grandpa used to lurk here, planning his escape.

Oddly, there is no life-force sucking here in the dementia unit. Within their minds I guess most of these people are still quite young, and some are even happy within their fantasies. What they have in common is that they all don’t inhabit the here and now.

In some cases it’s not obvious. There’s a dapper gentleman reading a newspaper. Some people have their moments maybe even a majority of them in the real world, but they are all slipping, they all have their episodes or they wouldn’t be here. There’s talking and conversations and what have you, but most are talking out loud to themselves and their speech has no context in the here and now.

The way I figure it is that they are all plugged into The Matrix of their pasts or their fantasies. I guess that’s ok.

I walk through the ambulatory unit, reflecting on the irony. “I’m ambulating through the ambulatory unit. Ha ha.” I think it’s called “Lively Bushes.” I make a left into the… well, I don’t know what they call the not abulatory unit.

It’s after lunch so they are all in the community room. Each person has their own wheelchair in which they are either sitting or restrained. It’s hard to tell which because in some cases like my Granfather’s the restraint is largely pharmaceutical in nature. Each person has a safety pin attached to a string on their clothing. The string goes to a magnet. The magnet goes to an alarm. If they try to get up, the magnet pops loose and the alarm goes off, and the orderlies cajole and/or force the inmate back into his chair.

The alarms are always going off, but oddly, only one at a time. Their is some hidden pattern at work, and each senile demented oldster seems to know when it’s his/her turn to set off an alarm.

There is a pattern. I’m sure of it.
This is where you end up when you’re senility is so advanced that you fall a lot or walk into things, or, like my grandfather attack everybody. They keep you in the chair.

Grandpa is by far the largest man in the room. Physically, he looks to be one of the healthiest. Mentally, he is one of the furthest gone, although it’s hard to tell with all the medication. If they take him off it, he goes kind of berserk. He’s very thin, because he has trouble eating, and he drools.

“Hi Grandpa! How are you?” I shout. He’s pretty deaf. There’s no reaction from his vacant eyes, but things move slowly here and slowly he shuffles his feet instinctively to turn the chair towards me. Watching this you might think he would address me or recognize my presence if I waited long enough. It looks like he’s going to do or say something. But, the way of this place is uninished gestures and unfulfilled expectations. He mumbles or says what sounds like words in a foreign language, but it’s just empty patterns.

After a minute or two, I imagine he focussed on my watch which is large and shiny and a bright steel. He mumbles and speaks, but he was doing that before I came in, nothing intelligible.

“You doing good?”

“ARglebargle, Gabloouies” or something.

I look him over, and he looks ok. Paper thin skin, huge, wasted frame, mostly empty shell. Something’s going on. He’s in The Matrix and having some kind of active fantasy or memory that he’s responding to.

I look in his drooling mouth and see the site where they removed the teeth. Looks good. No infection apparent, but how would I know? No fever, no nothing. He’s clean and groomed.

I sit for a few minutes. My mom said he was lucid for a little bit last year.

My father is lean and rangy like a wolf. This wasted old man before me is very thin, but he still looks… large. Barrel chested, and built like the Polish peasant he is, a bull of stubborn endurance. I’ve been told that physically he’s in a lot better shape than many 50 year olds. He’s in his 90s and I resent the brutal power that inhabits his body and keeps him here long after his mind and dignity are gone. He will likely survive until the dementia gets so bad he consistently inhales his food and spit and dies of aspiration pneumonia. Choking suffocation.

“What Bar are we at?” he says, pretty clearly. He’ll do that. The occasional sentence or intellible word.

Or maybe he said “What bar?” making a suggestion. Like maybe we should go and get a drink and what bar should we go to.

I take it the latter way. “An excellent suggestion.”

I could use a drink.

I’ve been there five minutes. I guess that’s enough. I say goodbye and flee.

Back in the ambulatory unit, I always have that seed of doubt. It never really grows to the point of fear, but it’s always back there, and interesting and disquieting possibility to toy over.

What if I am in the the Old Person Matrix?

Maybe I just think that I’m here visiting my grandfather. Maybe I am really old, and maybe I’m fantasizing that I’m young and visiting and hallucinating my suit and youth.

Maybe when I get to the door I will tap in the key code and it won’t open and the fantasy will be over and I will know.

I haven’t been here in six months, but I think this every time.

The door will not open for me. I will walk over to the desk and ask the lady for the code, saying I’ve forgotten. She will say “Oh no, Mr. Scylla. I can’t give that to you. You belong here. You have to stay here until you die.”

At the door, I’ve literally forgotten the key code, which is impossible because it’s impossible to forget. It’s doubly impossible because as I was walking I was thinking about being trapped here as an old person not knowing the key code.
9,7,3,2,1. I try again. 9,7,3,2,1 Again. Again.

Then I have to step aside. One of the old people has seen me, ambled over and now he wants to tap at the keypad. I let him and walk over to the desk.

“I’m sorry. I’m embarassed. I’ve forgotten the key code which I know is impossible, but I did.”

This is the moment of truth. Will she have to tell me that I have to stay here until I die? I know I am who I am. That I really don’t belong here. Still…

She whispers “odd numbers backwards.”

“Thank you,” I say, meaning it.

As I walk to the door, the gentleman who had followed me to the keypad asks the lady at the desk for the numbers, just like me.

I guess she tells him that he’s still trapped in The Matrix and will have to stay here until he dies.

I hit 9,7,5,3,1 Simple really. Impossible to forget. And escape, losing another day’s worth of lifeforce as I navigate back through the friendly wooded acres and shrubberies of Hell.

Back at the office I call Mom to report.

“How’s he doing?” she asks.
“He’s fine.”


I’m so sorry you have to watch your grandpa go like that, but this was very well written, and the imagery, intense. Maybe think about publishing it somewhere?

Oh yeah, publish. I doubt that the AARP magazine would want it, but someone will. Polish it up and send it to Newsweek, for their My Turn column. Not that it needs much polishing.

I’m sorry about your grandpa, and sorry that sometimes our bodies outlast our selves.

What she said. ^

Writing here is good enough. Submitting stuff would be work, and writing here I can sometimes pretend I could publish and be happy.

If I actually submitted… that would be reality.

My grandfather told me a story once:

He had this deer head on the wall, a twelve point buck he was proud of. Every time we came to his house and looked at it he would tell the story.

He waited all day in his blind and finally this huge deer ambled by. He took his time, aimed carefully, shot, and dropped the deer stone dead.

He came out of his blind and grabbed his field knife, lifted up the deer’s leg and started to stick the knife in, to dress it.

That’s when the deer came back to life.

It started to stand up and Grandpa grabbed it. It was the biggest deer he ever shot, and he didn’t want to lose it. He held on as it tore through the woods at top speed. It carried him across a stream and through brambles and pricker bushes but still he doggedly held onto the tail.

Suddenly the deer stopped in its tracks. It was startled because three hunters were walking back to the lodge after an unsuccessful day’s hunt. They stared at the deer and the deer stared at them.

Right as the deer was about to take off in a new direction, my grandfather who was still hanging on, leapt forward, screamed a battle cry and plunged his knife into the deer’s neck.

The deer stumbled but didn’t fall, and over and over he stabbed it still yelling, until finally the deer fell over. Dead for good this time.

Bloody and covered with scratches he stood panting over the fallen carcass.

The three hunters stared at him, ashen-faced and jaws agape. Grandpa felt some sort of explanation was required. He held up his blade.

“That’s the last time I ever kill a deer with a knife,” he said.

The funny thing about that story is that I believed it for the longest time. If you knew my grandfather, you might beleive it too. I believed it long after I grew into adulthood. Later I got married and moved to the country.

Hanging out with some neighbors they told that exact story… as a joke.


In case you’re interested, there is a site where you can publish online, automatically, for free. In fact, under certain circumstances (particular topics, or large number of page views) they pay you!

It’s called Associated Content. The quality of writing varies, but there are many excellent writers there. You would definitely be an asset to them!

The whole process is very easy and brief. I vote for the goat story!!!

I remember reading your post about your grandather when he started to slide into dementia.

Sorry you have to go through this.

I’m so sorry about your grandpa, Scylla - my father was a police officer too, and died of early-onset Alzheimers at the age of 62. Nursing homes (for the visitors) are hell on earth.

I did a brief stint as the head of housekeeping and laundry for some nursing homes. One of the homes had an alzheimer’s ward much like this, with the keycode. You’re supposed to play along with the patients’ delusions. If they say there’s a bus leaving to Tacoma, you point out where the “bus” is going to be…which is just around the corner to the right…until they make the next right in the circular floorplan and end back up at the desk. “Where’s the bus to Tacoma? I’ve got my ticket right here.” Then you point them around the corner and repeat the process until they get tired.

The worst are the people that have perfectly clear moments. They tell you they don’t belong there and they want to just go outside because they’ve been indoors for a consecutive days streak that would otherwise only make sense in the baseball world.

I’m sorry about your grandfather as well. I’m bad with this consolation thing, but at least you’ve got your memories for now.

now, that’s just mean!


I remember my grandfather’s final years being much like this. After my grandmother died the spirit in ‘pop’ just faded. Though not as large as your grandfather his constitution was similar. He’d been a boxer in his youth. His body still seemed to hold that power long after his mind let go. The nursing home in the tiny farming town where my family lives doesn’t have a whole ward of dementia patients. Its small enough that most of the residents are simply out, in general population. I walked in to visit him one day as he was talking to one of the other residents, insisting that she was ‘Van’, his late wife, Evangelin. The other resident was rather loudly telling him, she wasn’t.

The other month I translated a guide to nursing assistant care for people suffering from, among other things, dementia. The approach to this kind of situation in that guide was a little different. You’re not supposed to play along with delusions (“The bus to Tacoma? Over there”) nor try to dispel them (“There is no bus to Tacoma, you’re in the seniors’ centre”). Instead, you’re supposed to try to elicit why the person is asking that, and engage the person. (“Why, who’s in Tacoma? Your sister? You really miss her, eh? What’s she like?” etc.)

It seemed reasonable but a lot to ask for some harried nursing assistant who’s changing bedpans for a wardful of Alzheimer’s patients, so I don’t doubt that at some point it might just be more practical to do it how you’ve said.

My best wishes, Scylla. I’m so sorry for what this is putting you, your family, and your grandfather through.

Yet another fantastic OP Scylla.

I can relate.

I still remember the last time I visited my G-Pa at the home.

He knew me instantly, and his face brightened when I walked in the door.

Then he started to cry.

I asked him what was wrong, and he said that he couldn’t remember my name, and it hurt him incredibly.

G-Pa had always said he was fine with getting old, as long as he still had all his “marbles”.

He passed away three days later.

Thanks for sharing your story.

This reminds me why I decided my mom is going to live with me, no dementia yet, thank God, so I won’t have that struggle, but no matter the cost, I couldn’t bear to see her “warehoused”.

That OP almost made some dust get in my eye.

Scylla, your OP stands as a wonderful tribute to your grandpa. I too am in the crowd that you should seek publication for some of your works.

Scylla- As a paramedic, I get called to lots of nursing homes. I think I’ve been to every one in the Denver area, at this point. I’ve never seen a better description. Bravo.

When I saw the title and the poster I thought “this will be good.” It was, in the quality of writing at least. It’s not good that you and he have to go through that.

This is precisely why I should never have that job.

Too late. This essay is now the property of the Chicago Reader.

And the property of Scylla, regardless.

To Scylla: You’ve the way with words, you could make some cash doing that.