On May 7, Stevi Allen was busy working on a quilting project and wrapping gifts for a church ladies’ luncheon.
As she made her way to the lower level of her Spokane home, glass jars of gift candy in both hands, Allen, now 71, was in a hurry, as usual. She somehow missed the small, carpeted final step and crash-landed at the bottom of the stairs.
She felt a sharp pain in her left foot and looked down to see her foot turned in an unnatural way. “It felt like part of my
body had fallen off,” she said.
Allen screamed. Her husband, Pete Allen, came running from upstairs, saw the foot and called 911. The former firefighter and paramedic knew their lives had changed in that instant.
Allen didn’t return home for seven weeks. She lived for most of that time in the short-stay rehabilitation unit at Sunshine Gardens in Spokane Valley.
“I decided I would make the most of my time and have some fun,” Allen said.
Believe it or not, she did.
Short history of short-stay
When boomers were growing up, the older people in their lives recovered from surgeries and chronic illnesses in hospitals and/or in the homes of family members.
Life-enhancing medical procedures – such as heart bypass surgery, knee and hip replacements – were in their infancy in the 1960s. Now, joint replacements and complex heart procedures are commonplace, though full recovery can take months of physical therapy and other aftercare.
About 1.5 million men and women now receive rehab care in senior-care facilities, according to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, and the average stay is 30 days. The Inland Northwest has more than a dozen short-stay rehabilitation facilities. Sunshine Gardens opened its rehab unit about five years ago.
Kelly Rhoads, whose grandmother opened Sunshine Gardens in 1949 as a nursing home, started helping in the family business in 1972 when he was 14.
“It used to be we didn’t have short-stay rehab. That wasn’t even a term way back when I first started in this business,” said Rhoads, now the facility’s administrator. “The people we were taking care of came to us to die.”
Jason Priebe, director of rehabilitation services for Sunshine Gardens, said some of their older short-stay patients have undergone hip and knee replacements that doctors might not have done in the past.
“They weren’t doing the total knees and hips when you were 85, because they thought you were beyond that point. But now you can be 85 and 90 and get these arthritic joints taken care of and have a better quality of life.”
Sunshine Gardens is also seeing an increasing number of boomers in their 50s and 60s, and members of the generation just above the boomers – people in their 70s.
Doctors used to tell people who needed replacements to hold out as long as possible so the replacements would last the rest of their lives, Priebe said, “but now it’s ‘let’s do it.’ ”
Hospitals release replacement-surgery and heart-surgery patients with complex aftercare instructions that usually include intense physical therapy and follow-up appointments. Family members often can’t provide recovery care without outside help.
“(Life’s) a lot busier than it used to be, and people are spread all over the place,” Rhoads said.
Short-stay rehab provides a bridge between hospital and home.
Stevi Allen spent four days in the hospital. She had two steel plates and several pins placed in her ankle.
“It was a very nasty break,” she said. “It usually happens to skiers, not from falling down one step.
“On the fourth day, they said ‘We’re sending you out of here tomorrow.’ I assumed I was going home. The social worker said, ‘You can’t go home.’ I couldn’t stand. I was in a wheelchair.”
Allen chose Sunshine Gardens because a woman from her church had recovered there once. When the van pulled up, she felt in shock.
How had she gone from a healthy, active woman to a woman in a wheelchair with a surgical cast toe to knee?
Yet Allen said she only felt depressed one day, early in the first week there.
“I felt an emptiness, like, is this ever going to be over? I wanted to be home with my husband, dog and my things. I cried that day. I got it out of my system.”
She then surrendered to her recovery, to needing help (at first) with the bathroom and with showering.
“I’m not a person who asks for help, but I learned that it’s OK to ask. We all have to ask for help sometimes,” she said.
Allen awoke every morning at 6, got dressed and waited for her husband who arrived between 6:30 and 7 with coffee and toast. Then she ate breakfast with the other patients and during the rest of the day focused on her two long sessions of rehab – one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Her husband visited every afternoon. She ate dinner, and by 7, Allen was in her pajamas in bed, exhausted.
Her two grown children and four grandchildren visited and/or kept in touch through phone calls and email. Friends called and sent cards, but Allen discouraged most visits, because the therapy schedule was so intense. Allen’s iPad was a “lifesaver,” she said.
Allen drew strength and hope from the other rehab residents. Most were in their 80s and 90s.
“We tried to make light of the fact we were there,” she said. “We called it our cruise. We’d say ‘Welcome to paradise.’ ”
They joked about their rituals.
For instance, as dinnertime neared, the patients would line the hall in their wheelchairs and “listen for the carts to come down. It was something to do,” Allen said.
The residents had time to tell each other their stories. And to listen to each other.
Allen would wheel in and out of other patients’ rooms, asking about their health, their lives, their hopes.
“One 95-year-old woman was (excited) about going back to her assisted living community, because she had a boyfriend there,” Allen said. “And she did go back.”
When a virus swept through the facility, the residents were quarantined. Allen and the other residents made up lyrics about cabin fever. Allen found residents’ favorite songs on her iPad, and they crooned together Elvis Presley hits.
“None of us had voices, but we tried,” Allen said. “We laughed. We were silly.”
She grew close to the staff, especially the nursing assistants.
“They were the nicest, most generous people,” she said. “They will do anything for you.”
Allen left her mark on Sunshine Gardens, too.
“We heard compliments about her from the other residents,” Priebe said. “They just gleamed when she sat next to them. She was truly interested in them.”
Every week, the Rev. Charles Skok from Allen’s parish, St. John Vianney Catholic Church, came by with a healing blessing. Allen was sometimes doing rehab in the physical therapy room, and he blessed her there.
The seven weeks at Sunshine Garden helped Allen – and her husband – pause on the threshold of older age and count some blessings.
They have been married 50 years, and Pete Allen said: “I have a much deeper love for my wife now. I couldn’t do my stuff and her stuff, too.”
He didn’t know how to work the washer and dryer, for instance, and he didn’t cook much either.
“The George Foreman (grill) saved my life,” he joked.
They are grateful Allen will likely have a complete recovery. She still does outpatient physical therapy and also walks proudly through her neighborhood again, without walker, cane or cast.
The Allens have placed railings and grips on the stairways in their home, and in the bathrooms.
Allen thought a lot about her own mother during her weeks at Sunshine Gardens. Allen’s mother spent the last years of her life at a different care facility, after a fall broke her pelvis and dementia set in.
At meals at Sunshine Gardens, patients tied terry cloth “clothing protectors” around their necks, just like the ones at her mother’s nursing home. “I’d think, ‘Geez, have I switched places with my mother.’ ”
Allen hopes she doesn’t spend her 90s in a care facility, as her mother did, but she is no longer afraid of the prospect.
“I learned I could live with anybody, and you can adapt to anything if you try,” she said. “I don’t know what’s ahead of me, but I will take it as it comes.”