Image: Nursing home resident
Jim R. Bounds  /  AP
A resident pears out a door at Pinelake Health and Rehab Center in Carthage, N.C., on Monday, a day after seven residents and a staff member were killed.
updated 3/31/2009 4:21:02 PM ET 2009-03-31T20:21:02

Ellery Chisholm wishes she could forget the bearded man in the red shirt she saw appear at her bedroom door at Pinelake Health and Rehab and point a rifle at her horror-stricken roommate.

The 64-year-old dialysis patient wishes she could rid her mind of the sound of spent shell casings hitting the polished floor as a gunman made his way up her hall. She wishes she could dispel the images of a janitor's mop bucket filled with gore, and of three sheet-shrouded bodies being wheeled past her room on gurneys.

Many of her fellow residents — those who are stricken with Alzheimer's disease or dementia — don't remember, can't remember. But her mind is clear, and in a way, she envies those who won't be able to replay what happened.

"I won't forget it," she says, her shaking voice dropping almost to a whisper. "It will stay with me, as long as I live."

As the magnitude of Sunday's shooting spree at the sprawling 110-bed nursing facility sinks in, staff and family members are groping along, trying to determine how much residents know or remember — and how much they should tell them — about how a nurse and seven of their fellow residents were killed. The alleged shooter, Robert Stewart, is being held in a prison hospital, and authorities are investigating if he went to the home searching for his estranged wife, who worked there.

Some families are asking questions gingerly, not wanting to reveal too much in case their relatives' age-clouded minds shielded them. Others have told white lies out of kindness. Still others are thankful that illness this time is a blessing, hiding a memory that could terrorize a loved one in their final days.

Mary Gertha Sawyer, 102, seemed positive when her nephew came to visit Pinelake the day after the shootings. Gently probing to see how much she knew or remembered of the rampage, Vergil Shamberger asked simply how she was getting along.

Talk of church, not shooting
Traveling throughout the South with her AME Zion preacher husband, the late Rev. M.P. Sawyer, "Aunt Mary" saw the worst Jim Crow could dish out — and she remembers every bit of it. She got through it by refusing to dwell on the harsh details. If she even heard the gunshots Sunday, she did not mention it. Instead, she shifted the conversation with her nephew to church meetings, mission work and fundraising.

"She was just thanking God for it being another blessed day," Shamberger says. "If she never finds out, I have no problem."

Former seamstress Blanche Hill is 89, but she looks as if she could be 60. It's when she opens her mouth that she really shows her age.

Five years into her stay at Pinelake, she doesn't recognize her granddaughter most days and often can't remember her son Willie's name. When he visited his mother Monday, he took a backdoor approach to finding out how aware she was of the shootings that occurred on her corridor.

"Mom, is anything different around here today?" the son asked.

"There are a lot of strange people around," was her reply.

It was clear she didn't know that anyone had been killed, and he saw no reason to tell her. Why would anyone want his mother to die with such a memory?

"I mean, just think about someone shooting in a nursing home," says Hill, a former police chief in the nearby town of Robbins. "I mean, I'm not minimizing the schools or malls or whatever. They have shootings. But the people there can get away, run, whatever. But THEY couldn't. Some of them were in their beds; some of them were in wheelchairs. I mean, they were just sitting ducks really."

Social worker Parker Lindsay, who conducted a workshop for staff after the shootings, cautions staff and relatives not to mistake silence for serenity.

Lindsay says a person with dementia or Alzheimer's may have absorbed the trauma but be unable to effectively communicate feelings about the event. She told staff to look closely for signs of depression and subtle changes in behavior.

"If you see those behaviors changing after something like this, this horrible situation happened, then you've got to think, `OK. Somewhere they understand,' and you have to work with that," says Lindsay, who works for Therapeutic Alternatives in Asheboro. "They're going to be feeling all kinds of different types of emotion and stuff like that, and they can't express it. But it doesn't mean it isn't there."

For now, residents' families have been left to decide for themselves how best to deal with the residuals of Sunday's tragedy. That conundrum was perhaps no more heart wrenching than for the family of Jesse and Melba Musser.

"Where's Daddy?" 83-year-old Melba Musser asked Sunday morning, when her husband of 65 years failed to appear in the locked Alzheimer's ward at Pinelake for one of their daily visits.

Jesse Musser, 88, a retired railroad mechanic, master woodworker and gunsmith from Mullens, W.Va., had moved into Pinelake just six weeks ago. His wife, also suffering from advanced dementia, joined him four weeks later.

Safe behind a password-protected door, it's doubtful Mrs. Musser heard the gunshot that killed her beloved husband. Even with her mental deficits, Mrs. Musser could sense on Monday that something was not right.

"What's wrong?" she asked on the ride to her family's home in Aberdeen, where they were traveling before the funeral. "Where's Daddy?"

With almost no short-term recall left, Mrs. Musser no longer thinks in a linear fashion, says son-in-law Jim Foster.

"It's almost like it's on a loop," he says.

After some soul searching, the family decided it was best to tell Mrs. Musser that her husband had died. But they could not bear the thought of her reliving Sunday's violent events endlessly for the rest of her days.

They told her that he had passed peacefully, in his sleep. She wept, then slept.

When she awoke Tuesday morning, Foster says, she looked at her granddaughter and asked, "Where's Daddy?"

And they told her again.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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