Red Lipstick: A Nurse’s Journal

Red Lipstick

by Colleen Lanier

On a warm Florida afternoon, I pulled into the parking lot of my grandmother’s assisted-living facility. It was the fourth such parking lot I’d frequented since Grandpa, my dad’s dad, made the painful decision that he could no longer provide the care she needed. Grandma had dementia, and finding the right facility for her had proved to be a challenge. Staffing, food, programming and décor had to be considered, and every facility offered a different set of pros and cons. This was the smallest of the four she had lived in, and was certainly the prettiest.

I walked through the breezeway and entered the spacious living room. It was filled with overstuffed furniture, antiques, and the personal touches so often lacking in larger facilities. It looked beautiful and felt as if you were visiting someone’s home.

I scanned the living room and found my grandmother in her wheelchair, sitting between two other female residents. They were lined up in a row in front of the oversized TV screen, and, as I walked over to her, I was instantly irritated by the fact that they were watching a Spanish soap opera. Again. I had asked both the staff and manager to please choose English-speaking channels, because none of the eight residents in this small facility spoke anything other than English.

Grandma was listing to her left side, her head slightly bowed as she slept in her wheelchair. I touched her shoulder gently, and when she stirred and looked up at me, I was taken aback. Appalled. Her cheeks were heavily rouged, and her lips were painted scarlet. Like the ladies sitting next to her, she looked like a painted doll. My emotions morphed into anger and heartbreak as I saw my grandmother on display in a manner she would have found shocking.

My grandmother did not wear red lipstick. She was a southern Baptist who wore white gloves to church and believed dangling earrings were immodest. She was conservative and well mannered, and would have wholeheartedly disapproved of the color now covering her cheeks and lips. The fact that the ladies on each side were wearing the same vivid rouge and lipstick just made it worse. It struck me as a total violation and dismissal of whom these ladies used to be, and I was once again reminded of how helpless my grandmother was.

I disengaged the brake of her wheelchair and pushed her towards her bedroom, leaning down to kiss the top of her head. “Oh, Grandma. Let’s get you cleaned up, okay?”

No response. I wasn’t expecting one. It had been well over a year since I had seen the vaguest of recognition in her eyes, and she rarely spoke when I visited. Occasionally, if I hummed or sang softly, she would join in, but that was about as good as it got.

Once in her room, I used a washcloth to gently clean her face and wipe the scarlet from her lips. She offered no resistance, and within a few minutes she looked like herself again. There was a little time before lunch, so I took her outside for a little sunshine. As we passed the kitchen, we were greeted by the smell of fresh baked bread. It got Grandma’s attention, and she perked up a little, sitting a bit straighter.

The kitchen was a huge plus, and the main reason Grandma stayed here. While some facilities offered better programming, this one offered three delicious meals prepared from scratch each and every day. Food was one of the last pleasures left to her, and had been a deciding factor in choosing her latest home. We knew she was happy at least three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Florida sun forced us back inside, and while we waited for lunch to be served, I once again asked Maria, the manager, to be aware of what was playing on TV. She brushed me off, as she often did. Maria had very set ideas, and they often didn’t mesh with mine. When I told her my grandmother did not wear red lipstick, and that I would appreciate her face being left makeup-free, she laughed.

But I wasn’t laughing. “You do not have the right to paint my grandmother’s face,” I said, “and if she could tell you so, she would. She can’t, though, so I will speak for her. Do not put makeup on my grandmother! It is disrespectful of her beliefs. Are we clear on this subject?”

Maria gave me a long, hard stare, pursing her bright red lips. “We just want to make her look pretty, look happy.”

I felt like I was talking to a wall. “I understand that, but it is not what she would want. ChapStick, yes. Red lipstick, no. Definitely no.”

“Okay. No red lipstick.” She turned away and headed back to the kitchen, looking over her shoulder to tell me to take my grandmother to the dining room.

I watched my Grandma consume the warm bread and chicken casserole with gusto, using her hands to clean the last remnants off the plate. Her pleasure was almost enough to offset my frustration over the other issues. At least she was happy three times a day . . .

I wish I could say I never saw Grandma heavily rouged and sporting crimson lips again, but I can’t. It happened more than a few times, and eventually the pros of the facility were outweighed by the cons. Grandma went on to live in two more facilities before she passed away in 2009.

Looking back at the years I spent visiting my grandmother in the six facilities she called home, I wonder why that particular “lipstick moment” in the living room of that beautiful facility stands out so vividly in my mind. In the scope of everything she went through, why did I find that day so upsetting?

If I am honest with myself, it is probably because, in the back of my mind, I recognize that, but for the grace of God, one day I could be the one sitting in front of a TV watching something I cannot understand, covered with makeup I never would have chosen for myself. As caregivers, don’t we all wonder what will happen when our roles change and we become the ones who need protecting? I do. It’s not something I talk about, but it is definitely something I think about. When the time comes, who will speak for me?

For the record, I don’t wear red lipstick. And I hope I never do.


Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home and The Scenic Route. Visit Colleen on her Facebook page.

Photo was taken by Karen Keller Capuciati.

10 Responses to “Red Lipstick: A Nurse’s Journal”

  1. Joyce says:

    I am a retired nurse who worked in a long term care facility. My aides and I would make sure that our Ladies looked their best on special days, Holidays and Mothers Day. As I look back I can remember that most of their families would not come in to visit on these special days as often as they visited the Men patients. So on those days we would make sure that they were dressed extra special in their finest clothes. My aides would do their hair and put make up on if that is what they normally wore. Manicures were always a regular practace for them and we would have Tea, or Ice Cream Socials with some music and dancing. The gentlemen would love to join in so we would really make a party for them all. We would never disgrace them or make them look like clowns. A lot of the family would thank us for taking care of their parent so nicely.

  2. Charlie says:

    Colleen, I am so sorry that your mother suffered this indignation and that you had to witness it more than once. It is possible the caretakers were really trying to “make her look pretty, happy” but once you told them that your mother would never have chosen that for herself, they should have respected your wishes. I was very fortunate in that I found a place for both of my parents where most of the staff were truly caring and respectful. On many occasions I saw them hug my parents or on occasion kiss them softly on the forehead. They cried right along side me when each of my parents died in that one facility. The only bad thing that saddened me was the apparent theft of a diamond ring which was removed from my mother’s hand. She never removed that ring from her hand ever. Even as the dementia crept in,that was one thing she never did. The thought of someone taking advantage of an old lady in her condition is what saddened me but I won’t let that one bad incident undo all the good that was done there. We can all learn to forgive and certainly in the end it is not the externals that count but how much love we have for each other. I am sorry for your loss. charlie.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I am a caregiver…..or was, as a profession. If you were your mom’s caregiver, why was she in a facility? It’s just a wonder. I don’t know you and your definition of a caregiver may be completely different. She is your mom and you visit her …..and make sure the caregivers are doing their jobs.
    I just had to ask. …..I agree about the make-up and lack of respect for your mom, however.

  4. Kathryn.
    This was my grandmother, and my aunt was her guardian. Grandma needed 24/7 supervision for advanced dementia. After my experiences with my grandmother I went on to become a caregiver, advocate and support for family and friends facing like situations. There are, as you know, many faces to caregiving. Paid, unpaid, full time, part time, and even by distance. Not everyone can keep their loved one at home, no matter how much they would like to.

  5. Linda Crook says:

    I too worked in activities for assisted living. It paid less than any job I ever held, but also gave me the most joy. So many people are placed in retirement homes, and that’s it. The family forgets about them. I so respect you for being such a caring person Colleen. Wish there were more like you. I loved and cared for each elderly person I came in contact with and will never forget the love they were capable of giving.

  6. Terri says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. My mom suffered from dementia also and for her own safety had to be placed in assisted-living facility.
    It troubles me the people that want to judge without knowing what they are talking about.
    My mom passed away 3 years ago and I have no regrets on making the choice I made in placing her there.

  7. Thank you ladies! I appreciate your thoughts, and know you made the choices you thought best protected your loved ones. The loving caregivers/staff in ALFs are true treasures.

  8. Sue says:

    My mom was in a memory care assisted living unit – she had actually told me 3 years before that when the time came she wanted to be in assisted living (I was so grateful she told me that!). I, too, would come in to find her made up and wearing nail polish she would never have chosen. But I also know that an aide had sat down with her, talked to her about how pretty she was, and “gussied her up” in a way that was meant to be personal. My mother did not mind. It was disconcerting to me, but probably the personal attention meant a lot to her. The aides were devoted to her, and when she was in her last days, no longer conscious, they would come by AFTER THEIR SHIFTS WERE OVER to spend a few minutes with her each day. Try to look at it differently – it was probably meant with gentleness.

  9. Glenda Black says:

    I really enjoyed your Blog. I can identify on some levels, I am a disabled CNA, I lost my only child on 12/20/2013, I have no grandchildren and I often find my self wondering what will happen to me when I can no longer provide the needed care for my self. I have worked over 22 years in the nursing field, taking care of the elderly, also my parents(mom is no longer with us ) dad is 95.there are a lot of things to be considered. I wear just a minumial amount of makeup and would not appreciate being painted up. I suppose I could write a letter and leave with some one I really trusted as to what I desire in my old age. Thanks for your thought provoking Blog, have a good evening.

  10. Liz M. says:

    People shouldn’t question others for having their parents in a facility. For me, it was one of the most difficult decisions I had ever made in my life. Care taking can be extremely strenuous full time and even part time. Many people work full time and can not quit to take care of their family member. It also can put a lot of stress on the entire family dynamics. I lost many nights of sleep taking care of my mother, leaving me sick and useless to anyone else. Everyone has different circumstances with possible behaviors their parent has and many other issues.
    There are many well intentioned people who work in the facilities, but unfortunately there are also many workers who don’t read the family notes or follow the plans. Taking the time to respect the individual and treat them with dignity is essential to good care taking.

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