PhyllisEditor’s Note: Eighty-three-year-old Phyllis Donner Wolf figured she would live on her own until the end of her life and die peacefully in her sleep. But last spring, she fell and broke her neck, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. She went from living independently in her apartment in Palo Alto to a nursing facility in San Francisco called the Jewish Home. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” we talk to Wolf about what it takes to live a life of grace in a nursing home.

By Phyllis Donner Wolf

I was very active. I did yoga. I did yoga for 40 years. I was in an exercise class that met every morning at quarter to 8. I drove the car for friends to go to the symphony in the city. I was the one who took someone’s walker and put it in the trunk. So when I fell it was unbelievable. I didn’t dream I would wind up in a wheelchair.

I stood up in the middle of the night, which I often would just walk to the bathroom, and this time when I stood up I found myself on the floor. I think I heard a crack, which meant that my neck and spine, the bones just were brittle and broke. And I knew I had done great damage because I could not move the lower part of me.

Institutional living means you put your body and yourself into someone else’s control. I was expected to have a shower at a certain time, and I was expected to go to bed at a certain time, I was expected to get up and get dressed at a certain time. And that’s still difficult. Especially when you’ve been so independent.

What I see here are people who are well taken care of; people who are very limited physically and mentally. My first shock at seeing the dining room with people who could not feed themselves or whose heads are down in their lap, was like, “How am I going to eat in here every night?”

You can choose to go in your bedroom, lock the door, never see people, mope, complain. Or you can just face life. I mean this is what’s happened to you, deal with it.

I just feel that it’s more fun to laugh and smile than to really weep over what’s taken place for me or for the other people. I’m going to make my fun. I’m going to make my laugh, my smile, I’m not going to let it get me down.


April Dembosky

April Dembosky covers health care news and trends across California for KQED's statewide program The California Report. She has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, and aging and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Third Coast International Audio Festival, the Society for Professional Journalists, and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

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