Betty Bednarowski points to the squirrel on the deck and smiles, with an almost childlike wonder.
“Can you see him?” she asks, while sitting at the kitchen table and slowly picking her way through a bowl of honeydew melon and cantaloupe.
It’s a calm, quiet morning for Bednarowski, who moved into her daughter’s home in Rotterdam Junction last November.
The 78-year-old, who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, spent much of the pandemic in a nursing home, and might have stayed there until the end of her life had her daughter not grown increasingly frustrated with COVID-19-related restrictions on visitation and decided to bring her home.
When I met Bednarowski’s daughter Susan Ryder last September, she was advocating for legislation that would permit designated personal caregivers to visit loved ones in long-term care facilities even when the broader public is barred from visiting.
That law was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the end of March, but Ryder stopped waiting for it to go into effect long ago.
Instead, she took the highly unusual step of bringing her mother home from the nursing home.
“Nothing was as hard as leaving her in there,” Ryder told me, while we chatted at her kitchen table on a weekday morning. “I will do this until her dying day. She wakes up every day and says, ‘I’m so glad to see you, I’m so glad you’re here.’”
Taking a loved one out of a long-term care facility and bringing them home isn’t easy, which is why so few people do it.
The typical nursing home resident is there because they have complex medical needs that make in-home care extremely difficult, not because they don’t have a caring and supportive family.
Over the past year, I’ve interviewed a number of people with relatives in long-term care facilities, and it’s clear that the decision to place a family member in a nursing home is often an anguished one, made as a last, sometimes desperate, resort.
The lockdown and restrictions on visitation that were implemented after the lockdown was lifted added to their worries and frustrations, but most said that bringing their loved ones home simply wasn’t an option.
So I was surprised when I caught up with Ryder and she told me that Bednarowski was no longer living at the Schenectady Center on Altamont Avenue, the facility where she resided for over three years.
The turning point came when Ryder’s brother visited Bednarowski after the lockdown instituted in March was lifted, and visits were permitted again, with strict restrictions.
“The visit just broke him,” Ryder recalled. “He called later and said, ‘What do we have to do to get her out of there?’”
Bednarowski received guidance and encouragement from two women: Karla Abraham-Conley, a Utica resident who moderates an informational and support group for relatives of nursing home residents on Facebook, and Jill Wisler, a Long Island resident who also opted to take her mother out of a nursing home last fall.
“I tell other people what I did, and I hope it gives them the strength to do it,” Wisler said. “I don’t sugar-coat – I tell people the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts.”
“Pulling a loved one out of a nursing home is hard,” she continued. “You need a lot of patience and a lot of understanding, and you have to realize you’re no longer first. In some respects, you have to think, ‘My life has stopped. I’m here to take care of my mother.’ There’s a lot of sacrifice with it.”
“Susan made the absolute correct call,” Abraham-Conley told me, adding that while the pandemic has inspired more people to inquire about taking relatives out of nursing homes, most don’t go through with it. “She was one of the very few who could get it done.”
Being able to access support services makes a huge difference.
Bednarowski qualifies for the state’s Nursing Home Transition and Diversion program, which uses Medicaid funding to provide seniors and people with disabilities with round-the-clock, home-based support services.
Through this program, she receives regular visits from home health aides, who tend to her needs and ease Ryder’s caregiving burden.
Coming home appears to have been good for Bednarowski’s health.
In a photograph Ryder sent me last fall, her mother is sitting in a chair, cradling a stuffed animal, with a downcast, somewhat grim expression. “Her hair is rarely clean or combed,” she told me.
When I met Bednarowski at Ryder’s home, she seemed content, smiling shyly, blowing kisses, watching birds and animals on the back deck, and playing with dolls. A former organist and pianist, she hums constantly, the tune often segueing into “Winter Wonderland” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
It hasn’t always been the easiest of transitions, and Ryder is still learning how to best care for her mother.
But she has no regrets and seeing her and Bednarowski enjoying each other’s company after such a long, difficult year was cheering – a happy end to a story that, for too many others, ended in heartbreak.
Before I got up to leave, Ryder leaned over and beamed at her mother.
“I’m just so thankful you’re here, mommy,” she said, and the two women smiled at each other.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.