By Jack Cumming

Most senior living residences have a no-tipping policy. The one where my mother spent her last years was no exception. Hers was a for-profit nursing home. Her story was simple and common.

A Life Turn

After my dad died, my mother continued to live in the suburban home into which they had downsized when my dad lost his job and retired. After a grief transition, she became self-sufficient and content to live alone. She refused all suggestions that she move to a CCRC.

That all changed when she had a minor stroke. After a stay in the local hospital, her doctor suggested that she go to a nursing home for a brief two-week rehabilitation course. Somewhat like Hans Castorp, in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, that short stay extended for twelve years.

I would visit only monthly since I lived across the country.  A friend with whom I ate lunch most days suggested that I slip cash to her caregivers surreptitiously. My friend noted they are overworked and underpaid. My friend knew. He owned several nursing homes himself.


After that, I would get cash from the bank before each trip, and I soon found that those “gifts” did much to lift morale both for my mother, who knew nothing of my tipping misdeeds, and for those who tended her. I learned that the workers pooled the money to share it fairly. Yes, I was breaking the rules, which made me uncomfortable, but I confess that it was little different from my discomfort when driving 80 on a California freeway. As a resident today, I’m less free than I was then as a son.  It’s too risky now to defy the authorities to help the employees.

Thus, it was that as her ninetieth birthday approached, my mother had grown frail and accustomed to the indoor life of a nursing home resident. The entire extended family was going to fly in to honor her. Across the street from the Valley Dream Nursing Home (not its real name) was a Best Western hotel. Our idea, when we discussed it, was that we would all stay at the Best Western and host the party there. We planned a Sunday brunch since that is such a relaxed way to dine and celebrate. The hotel’s events department gave us an estimate of $2,500 for the event.

The Challenge

When I spoke with Mom, she demurred. Glaucoma had impacted her vision so it was painful for her to be outside. The light so affected her eyes that she didn’t want to leave the familiarity of the facility for any reason. We still wanted to host that brunch, however. At this point, I had a bright idea. I went to the kitchen and found the supervisor. I told him of our dilemma with the hotel, and I asked him what he could do onsite if I gave him $1,500 (Yes, that was a little cheap). Our plan was still a Sunday brunch.

The food supervisor proposed that we might reserve the staff conference room and that he and his staff would be delighted to provide a special family brunch. I gave him the $1,500 in cash. He told me he’d let me know if he could work it all out. Within a few days, I had a phone call that all was set.

The Grand Occasion

A month later, we flew in for the scheduled brunch. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were very pleasantly surprised. The staff showed us to the conference room, and Mom was seated at the head of the table. The waiters who generally served the modest facility meals were transformed. They came in with grace and ceremony and took pride in the upscale ambiance of their service.

My mother, too, was in her element. It was as though she were no longer a patient. From her seat at the head of the table, she clearly enjoyed being once more the gracious hostess which had been her pride. “Would anyone like some coffee?” she asked. She then nodded toward the waiter to fulfill the requests. The waiter, too, deferred to her as the head of the household. It was a magnificent event and everyone was lifted up.

On the side, the supervisor told me of how the staff had been thrilled by the chance to earn some extra money. A little extra goes a long way for people who are struggling to get by on near minimum wages. The entire venture had excited the creative spark throughout the kitchen. One staff member knew of a top-notch bagel shop near his home. He bought bagels and smoked salmon for the occasion.  Another had an aunt who catered, and she came in to help with the preparations.

Joy For the Joyless

As it turned out, that brunch was super fun for all the attendees. For my mother, it was one of the highlights of her life. She loved being important again by playing the hostess without the preparation or the cleanup. For the staff, it elevated them above the strictures which generally constrained their work lives. They, too, felt like they mattered for the occasion.

There’s happy aftermath as well. The ninetieth birthday had been such a success that we decided to repeat the event a year later. During a visit with my mom, I again went to the kitchen. I was going to up the ante and spring for the full $2,500, but the supervisor said there was no room. It turned out that our event had been so successful that the staff had a mini-business going on the side and that there were now five private rooms used for the purpose.

All five rooms were fully booked for my Mom’s birthday weekend. We settled for funding an elaborate meal in the normal dining room. Most of the other diners were being hosted by family in those private rooms. The one remaining table of four residents simply joined our event and enjoyed a better meal than the common fare of the house. The presence of younger visitors in that forlorn food hall was like a light shining in the darkness.

It brings tears of happy joy to my eyes even now, twenty-five years later, as I think of how that simple freeing of staff initiative raised the happiness of that entire facility. On those Sundays, while the management was away, the facility became a home for a day, a home of celebration.

On one of my visits later, I learned that the executive director, of course, had an inkling of what was going on. She knew, too, that the corporate owner was more concerned with resident satisfaction ratings and financial results than with adherence to the minutiae of the petty rules that proliferate in senior housing institutions. She simply made it her business to overlook everything. As Louis Renault famously says in the movie Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Life’s End

Those moments of joy and uplift are the more poignant for how it ended. Mom’s years of residence ended when mother’s assets were exhausted, and she went on Medicaid. The indignity of impoverishment, combined with the loss of hairstyling, took away her will to live. She refused to eat and drink. It didn’t take long. Her passing was classified as “failure to thrive.” By the time the family realized what was happening, it was too late for us to take up the slack. Mom was determined. Her time was over. Her pride was gone. Many of you know similar stories.

Thank heavens, she had those moments of joy and love before her final passage.