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December 28, 2012: A Visit with Katie Long

Yesterday, late afternoon, Pete came down to the horse hitching post and said that Charlene Schmidtkunz had just called, and said that she was on her way to Anchorage to see her mother—she wanted to know if I’d like to come along. I told Pete to relay the message that I’d go with her to town. Charlene arrived at my place a half-hour later – we then drove to where Katie now lives, the Alaska Pioneer Nursing Home.

Katie Long was my first Alaska-based riding instructor. She’s a central character in Raudi’s Story and Raising Raudi. I last saw her in March. She was then living in a Wasilla assisted living facility. The Wasilla facility was very home-like. There were just a few people there. And these people

got a great deal of individual attention. I figured that the Pioneer home would be more institutional. There are many people there. And I suspected that they don’t get much one-on-one attention.

My thoughts on this matter were seemingly verified when Charlene and I arrived where Katie now lives. The place seemed to me to be a maze of hallways, painted pale green in color. There were rows upon rows of rooms, and at the end of each hallway, small lobbies with couches and chairs. Attendants hurried about. The words cold and impersonal immediately came to mind.

Charlene had called ahead, so Katie was ready for visitors. She was in her wheelchair, fingering a couch cushion cloth. Charlene and I greeted her. Charlene, I noticed has this amazing way of intuiting what her mother is saying. And Katie understands her. The two seem to have figured out a way of transcending the language barrier. For example, Charlene talked with her about Christmas – she’d taken her mother to a family gathering. Katie listened intently, as Charlene told her about how the snow was falling, and what a lovely day it was. Then Charlene asked her if she was bothered by having been carried to into the house. Katie responded in the affirmative, not through words, but through her use of body language, nodding and opening and closing her hands.

I looked at some of the other patients as the two conversed. This was the dementia ward, and those in it seemed to me to be from a scene from the Night of the Living Dead. A fellow walked by, and Katie said hello – he did not respond.

Charlene suggested we go for a stroll. I was by now inwardly bemoaning the fact that Katie had ended up in this place. And, I thought, how sad it was, that this woman, a former horseback rider par excellence, was hoofing it around in a wheelchair. Katie, it seems, can get around by pulling the ultra-lightweight loaner wheel chair with her feet.

It was as we were cruising down the hallway that Charlene said something that changed my perceptions about Katie’s current living situation. I’d just asked about Katie’s having made the transition from the Wasilla place to this one, and how it went. Charlene said that it didn’t go well at first – Katie kept her eyes closed the entire first day. But, she said, the next day Katie “went up and down the halls checking everything out.” It was, Charlene added, “like she’d been transported to Disneyland!”

Right then, I saw the Pioneer Home in a more positive light. It was like Disneyland. There were holiday decorations everywhere. It was downright festive. There were trees, and lights, and bright shining ornaments. There were little tables with miniature Christmas scenes. And there were ceiling decorations. An attempt had also been made to make the place home-like—there was a black cat living on Katie’s floor – it had a stand in one corner, and a litter box and food in another. It was playing with an ornament. There was also a little café, where the residents could go and order food. And the caretakers – they were friendly and cared about the people they were working with.

I was also moved by Charlene’s attitude towards her mom. She was gentle, kind, considerate. And she treated her mother like her mother would want to be treated. I too then believed that Katie is both intelligent and able to converse with people. It was a good life lesson for me. And I hope that others in such places are as fortunate as Katie Long.

Next: 382. 12/29/12: Moving Forward at the Speed of Light