We Don’t Talk About This Either…

January 18th, 2016 by elaine

Once when my husband was visiting his father in the place where he would spend his final days, his father said, I never thought I would end up in a place like this.

It wasn’t a prison, it was a nice place where his wife of many years was on a different floor because she had reasons to be on that floor just as he had reasons to be on the floor he was on.  I forget what the reasons were but they were reasonable at the time.

My eldest brother and his wife lived in a lovely condo, not an apartment but one of those lovely places that had a lot of land and the condos were more like houses, attached, but, you know, like a place of ones own.  They lived there until they decided to get ready for the last days of their life and so they moved to a lovely place that provided assisted living.  They had their own apartment but all the same, my brother and his wife said it was an institution and they didn’t like living in an institution.  They weren’t the first elderly couple I knew who didn’t like it there.  And like the other couple who, somewhere in their 90′s, moved out of that place into an apartment of their own next door to where their daughter lived,  my brother and his wife moved to another city and another place where it really did feel like assisted living and not an institution.  One of his sons and his wife lived in the same city but not right next door.  They spent their last days there until my sister-in-law got ill and died, and my brother lived there alone until he eventually required more care and was moved to another facility…I don’t know exactly where…and he eventually died there.  It was not long after his 99th birthday when I had called him long distance and wished him a very happy birthday and reminded him that he had promised me he would make it to one hundred.  It was a short conversation because they were having a birthday party in the place and he had to go, but he sounded pretty peppy to me.

At this point I have to explain that I am the youngest of nine children, and it is perhaps understandable, logical really, that I always assumed that everyone in my family, parents and kids, all knew more than I did about everything.  And although I asked a lot of questions, it was not unusual that I did not get an answer, or rather, not a serious one.

So when I was informed of my brother’s death just a few weeks later, surprised because I had not known of any illness, I asked What happened? and I was told that nothing happened, he got old, and old people die eventually.

I didn’t think it was appropriate to pursue the point on the telephone at a time of loss. Nor have I ever found another opportunity.

I received a similar telephone call not long ago to inform me that the elder of my two remaining sisters was dying, and by chance I had spoken on the phone with her just a few days before and she sounded fine, she wasn’t ill.  So I didn’t let this one go.  I was told that she had lost a lot of weight, wasn’t eating and was sleeping a lot.  I may have been told some other details but I can’t say for sure.  I just didn’t want to hear about it because this sister was really dear to me, even if she lived far away.  When I was born, she was a teenager, and she was my little mother.  And well, for lots of other reasons, all of which are extremely important to me.

So I called my sister in the institution to which she has been confined for some time.  Not a prison but in many respects like one.  But I won’t discuss that right now either.  Miraculously, I was able to reach her, and I told her I had made reservations and I was coming to see her.  I told her exactly when I would arrive – it was about four days later, and I made sure she heard me (she is very hard of hearing) and I made sure she understood me (they say she has dementia).  I repeated it several times and told her not to forget, and she assured me she would remember.  And then she said, O.K. I’ll wait for you.

I was thrilled…. and then, what did she mean by that? O.K. I’ll wait for you?

I thought about it – I thought she meant like, she wouldn’t go out shopping or something, you know, a flash back to another life.  That’s o.k.  Nothing to worry about. But somehow, unexplained, it echoed: O.K. I’ll wait for you.

I rented a car at the airport and drove to the place and I got there about 1:30 in the afternoon and found her sound asleep in her bed.  I said her name and Get up! Get up!  I’m here. She was startled of course and somewhat confused, but she knew it was me and she was glad to see me, and eventually I got someone in the place to dress her and take her to the bathroom and do all those things they should have done earlier in the day except, as I was told, they had agreed, according to her wishes, they would just leave her alone if that’s what she really wanted.

I spent a lot of time with her over three and a half days, hours and hours, and we talked a lot. When I spoke directly into her right ear, she heard me very clearly. She told me lots about the place, the things she didn’t like, and how she had decided that after spending her entire life being nice about everything and never making a fuss, now she decided she was going to be a PERSON, not a nothing, and she was going to express herself.

I know who she is and I am proud of her.  I love her for many reasons, as I said, and one of them is that she was a miracle baby – she weighed a pound and a half when she was born and her twin, who died four or five years ago, weighed a pound and three quarters. She is not senile, she told me that herself. When she asks me if I have seen her twin and I say no,  she died, she says Oh yeah, I remember.  She cannot believe she is 98 years old.

When I said good bye, she thanked me for coming and said if someone offered her a million dollars instead of my visit, she wouldn’t take it!

I suspect the institution would have made the opposite choice.  But that’s another story and I can’t tell that one yet.  We don’t talk about the downside of institutional life at the end of life.  We prefer to think of it as a social good.  Not me, but  I don’t have a better idea so I have to keep my mouth shut.  Perhaps I’ll think of something in time to make sure I don’t end up in one of those places.

©Elaine A. Zimbel 2016

Posted in Eighty and then some..., Health Care, We Don't Talk About That...

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