When My Mom Had a Stroke, My Goal Was To Create A Calming Home for Her

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The scent of Thai basil, mint, and citrus perfume the air of Kim Nguyen’s petite Southern California patio, her slice of respite after a grueling year of recovery. If you didn’t know, you might not guess that the inviting, greenery-filled space below is attached to a cozy studio in an assisted living community, all decorated by her daughter Kate Berry (yes, our Kate Berry).

In Kate’s eyes, an outdoor oasis was essential to her mom’s healing. Kim, a Vietnamese refugee who fled the country with her family in 1975, has been an avid gardener all her life—not to mention a self-made businesswoman, accomplished knitter, skilled cook, mother of four, and grandmother of five. When a stroke left her without the use of the left side of her body last July, her family had to mobilize quickly to usher her through a series of facilities and treatments. Once they settled on a long-term care home, Kate became determined to turn an otherwise cold apartment into a calming, comfortable place to live.

Teak and Wicker Outdoor Lounge Chairs, West Elm; Teak and Wicker Outdoor Side Table, West Elm; Cityscape Indoor-Outdoor Planters, West Elm; 12-by-12-Inch Wood Interlocking Deck Tile, Wayfair.

“There’s no right way; there’s no perfect process,” Kate says of feeling your way through caring for a parent after a medical emergency. “There’s no way to anticipate what somebody will need coming out of a situation like that.” What she and her family found out almost immediately was that her mom needed an entirely new suite of furnishings that would work for her condition, was compact enough to suit her new place, and that they could actually afford. Their search led them to West Elm, which has a substantial selection of ADA-compliant furniture. After some trial and error (more on that later), Kate designed a practical yet inviting layout and look with the brand’s help, and it works for her mom and makes everyone who walks in a little more relaxed. 

“It’s not groundbreaking, but it just looks so much better than it was,” she reflects, acknowledging that it’s really the first place her mother’s needs and comfort were put first. “All the nurses say, ‘Your mom’s room is the nicest room!’” Below, Kate breaks down all their furniture and decor decisions in her own words.

A Regular Bed, Made More Supportive

bed and console

Romi Upholstered Bed, West Elm Kids; Dreamy Gauze Cotton Duvet Cover and Shams, West Elm; Organic Washed Cotton Percale Sheet Set, West Elm; Anton Shallow Media Console, West Elm; Beatrix Floor Lamp With Linen Shade, West Elm.

There’s no way around it: Hospital beds are ugly. All of them. We were renting this fancier hospital bed and mattress (uncomfortable, still ugly) that reclines and, come to find out, my mom doesn’t ever use the recliner part except to take her pills at night. She really just needs the bar so she can transfer from her wheelchair to the bed. So instead, I looked at the dimensions of West Elm’s ADA-compliant furniture and sourced pieces from across its collection that fit into that size range and that could be delivered quickly. We got the Leesa mattress and the full-size Romi kids’ bed. Then we picked up an assist rail from Amazon to attach to it. Once we made the switch, she told us she slept until 7 a.m.; it was much more comfortable. It’s upholstered, which really makes a difference. Looking back, my mom could have made do with a twin bed. She’s small, and the stroke left her paralyzed on her left side, so she’s not moving around as much as I anticipated. But it’s nice that the grandchildren and I can lie next to her on the full size.

My brother-in-law also found a remote control set at a hardware store that controls the lights. We’ve connected them to all the floor lamps, plus the bedside and dining table lights so she can easily switch them on and off from her bed.

The shallow media console between the bed and the wall is such a nice narrow option with great storage. It’s where my mom keeps her bedding and other things that she needs, and it holds her TV. She doesn’t need to get in between there because she’s not mobile on that side—she always has to get into bed on the side where her right arm can grab the bar. Once I found out that I could add these simple touches—that the whole space didn’t have to be hospital-grade—that really shifted my perception of what an assisted-living room could be.

A Wheelchair-Friendly Rug Trick

wide shot of studio

Azalea Reversible Persian Rug, West Elm.

The floors are carpeted, but I wanted to introduce a rug to brighten things up. We picked up a handwoven, Persian-style design that is reversible and not very thick, which in theory makes it easy to wheel over and is great for disguising spills and dirt. My mom initially complained about it because it bunched up under her wheelchair, so we took it out. But the room felt drab without it, so we brought it back and carpet-taped the entire rug. That extra step solved the bunching problem, and the rug added the decorative layer I knew was missing.

The Chair-and-a-Half That Has a Secret

wide living room shot

Haven Chair and a Half Twin Sleeper, West Elm; Two-Tone Chunky Linen Pillow Cover, West Elm.

This cute chair-and-a-half is actually a sleeper sofa—it’s been a game changer for us. When we visit, my daughter Quinn and I, or my sister and I, can fit on it and it’s comfortable for us. I can just rotate it if I want to pull the mattress out. Before we added the sofa, my mom would just sit on the bed or in her wheelchair all day, even to watch TV. That’s just not comfortable. Now I can prop her up on the chair to relax and recline. She can watch a show from across the room; her sight is actually still really good despite only being able to see out of one eye.

A Faucet Fix for Easier On-and-Offs

My mom has always been an amazing cook with great knife skills. While she can’t cook in the same way she used to, we’re trying to figure out what she can do. So far, she has a microwave, a rice cooker, and a kettle. We’ve made everything from rice to sweet potatoes in the cooker for when she wants something simple rather than the food that is served in the care facility’s restaurant. My sister added this attachment onto the faucet so my mom could reach it from her wheelchair, too. There are just some things that are more functional than aesthetic, and I had to let go of it not being pretty.

Well-Positioned Shelves

We put up these shelves as a spot for pictures, keys, mail, and other accessories under my mom’s calendar. We installed the one near the door low enough so she could wheel up to it and use it as a mini counter. She can also look up at her schedule and see what she’s doing that week, whether that’s different therapy appointments or activities.

Tables She Can Roll Up To

The dining table is a really simple square oak table with clean lines. It actually comes with two leaves, but for now we don’t need them. We placed it against the wall to give my mom more space and so she can look out onto the patio plants while she has her tea. The legs are wide enough for her wheelchair to fit right in.

The side table next to the upholstered chair is another accessible surface and storage spot. Other than gardening, my mom’s favorite hobby is knitting. She’s really a master of it and has created countless sweaters, hats, scarves, and pants. One of the things that has been really hard on her, and us, is the fact that she can’t knit like she used to. She’s been discouraged this past year, but I’m determined to help her get back to doing it again. To start, I made her needles and yarn easily reachable by putting them in a basket that she can pull from the side table’s shelf while still in her wheelchair. Then I simply tied a thick rubber band to the left armrest of her wheelchair where she can secure a needle. That way, she can knit with one hand. It’s not a perfect system, but we’ll get there.

An Outdoor Space That Smells Like Home

friends on patio

Kim and her friends on her plant-filled patio.

My mom took so much pleasure and joy in her garden in sunny Orange County. She cultivated everything that she had grown up with in Vietnam: passion fruit, citrus, lemongrass, longans. That was her solace, her place to escape and be happy. When she was recovering, my brother brought a humidifier with essential oils into the rehab center so it always smelled like lemongrass and lavender. So even though she couldn’t be in her garden, it would smell familiar. Everyone would come into her room and say, “It’s like a spa in here.” 

In her new living arrangement, we really wanted to create an outdoor space with plants that she could watch flourish, citrus that would bear fruit, and fresh herbs to pluck from a “garden.” When she moved in, my siblings and I outfitted a little sitting area for her and her friends. We installed teak snap tiles over the cement floor, which instantly warm the space up and don’t interfere with the nurses transferring her to a seat. We added a taller rectangle planter that creates a divider wall from the neighboring patio for privacy. With a couple of lounge chairs, a teak and wicker table, and a bunch of plants, it has a whole new vibe.

There are a number of little things that we did to make her studio feel like home. For one, I took a panel from the Nordic Knot sand-colored shades I use at home and put it up over her sliding patio doors. It provides shade when it’s closed but still filters sunshine into her room; her eyes are sensitive to too much brightness these days. It also adds a layer of softness to the beige walls.

The little glass jar on her nightstand was meant for my niece from a White Elephant we did last Christmas with the grandchildren, but she ended up with it and thought it was so cute. It’s for all her bingo quarters from her winnings (which isn’t much, but that’s not the point!).

My friend Paul Ferney painted a portrait of Quinn that hangs in one sunny corner. The ceramic box on the shelf near her bed was made by my sister when she was a child and my mom has kept it all these years. We put pictures of her and the grandchildren up everywhere; they’re the number-one thing that makes her happy. She loves the pictures of her and the kids in Mexico, the last family vacation we took together before the stroke. My mom left everything behind when we had to get out of Vietnam at the end of the war. As a refugee not having anything when you leave your country, you hold onto a ceramic that reminds you of the time your daughter was younger and photos that transport you to happy times.

This process has been really hard for all of us, but especially Mom; we’re learning to adapt to a new normal. A friend whose father had a stroke a few years ago said to me: “There will be good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, and good months and bad months.” That has given me patience and perspective when dealing with difficult moments. 

Kim Nguyen

Kim Nguyen.

The above portrait of her, where she’s smiling, really makes me happy, but not because she looks happy. It’s because the way we knew how to get her to smile was to remind her of a moment she had a couple of months after her stroke. She had to be taken to the ER in an ambulance because of a complication and, after that, she could not stop talking about the handsome paramedic who looked like Kyle Chandler (yes, the coach from Friday Night Lights). She told us how he flirted with her, referring to my sister (her daughter) as her sister. Now all we have to say is “Kyle Chandler” for her to crack a smile. And just like that, a new funny memory.

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