Final indignities for my old neighbour and current long-term care resident

The mangled stems gave the flowers the appearance of having been ripped from someone’s garden, an afterthought at best. Still, I arranged them as best I could. (Tara Hardy For the globe and mail)

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A bouquet of pink tulips – that was the thing to lift the spirits in the middle of winter.

I was on my way to visit Dottie, a former neighbour and now resident of a long-term care facility. With her health deteriorating from diabetes, I knew she was relying on an oxygen tube to assist her breathing. I steeled myself for what I would find.

This visit was overdue, and while I wanted to lighten her day, if possible, I had been avoiding it. What would I say? What could a short visit possibly do for her? It was so little in the general scheme of things, both an obligation and a choice. I knew she had few friends or family. I could do this, I told myself, bracing for the worst.

Entering the room, I saw Dottie slumped against pillows in an oversized chair from her suburban home. She was asleep, her head lolling to one side, her mouth open, false teeth askew and oxygen tubes protruding from her nose. Pain, despite the sleep, was etched on her face. A walker was directly in front of her for support and to hold her food. She was unable to make the short trip to the dining room.

Touching her gently, I tried to rouse her. Having no luck, I busied myself putting the tulips in a vase. Stems needed to be cut to revive the blooms. I twisted and tried to break the stems, but to no avail. The mangled stems gave the flowers the appearance of having been ripped from someone’s garden, an afterthought at best. Not the look I’d been going for. Still, I arranged them as best I could.

This facility was the last place Dottie would call home. I found it especially poignant since my own mother had spent her last days in this very place. Dottie’s room was crowded, as my mother’s had been, with family photos, large-scale furniture and treasures from her former life.

For months her life had been shrinking, confining her now to one large chair. She was no longer able to sleep lying down in a bed, and despite the presence of the walker directly in front of her, there would be no more walking for this woman who once loved it. Her legs were a testament to her end-stage diabetes: red, swollen, oozing pus from sores. The final ravages of the disease.

I’d met Dottie years before on the paths that meander through our community. She and her husband, both in their 80s, would take a daily constitutional along the paths, always well dressed (he in a suit, vest and jaunty wool cap; she in a dress slightly too formal for walking, and shoes meant more for church than exercise, her hair recently coiffed), and always, always holding hands.

It was the second marriage for each, both of their first spouses having died years before. This was a love match, a union that came when they were “too old” for romance. With his death a year before, Dottie’s deterioration had accelerated.

She awoke when an attendant came in with meds. It took her several minutes to orient herself. She had trouble downing the pills until the attendant took out her teeth to allow swallowing. Another indignity. She clutched the walker, her knuckles white, when spasms of pain gripped her. The attendant spoke quietly, trying to soothe her, while I rubbed her back, hoping that a human touch would ease her anxiety.

As the pain abated, she brightened up enough to talk and even share a laugh. It was wonderful to see a flicker of that wicked sense of humour, however brief. Most of the time she spoke English, but periodically she slipped into her native German, and I understood just enough to realize that she was back in a frightening period of her past when she’d escaped soldiers during the Second World War. Her arm stretched out, fingers rigid, almost in a pointing motion, she raged “That son of a bitch!” before pain gripped her again.

She had had a traumatic life – and now this. Trapped in a chair, dependent on the kindness of others.

After two hours I said goodbye, knowing that this would likely be my final goodbye to her. The doctor said she was nearing the end. All they could do was keep her as comfortable as possible. I bit my tongue so that I didn’t blurt out, “You’re not doing a very good job!”

Dottie looked me directly in the eyes, squeezed my hand and thanked me for caring and for visiting. I answered: “I wish I could do more.” This was an unwelcome flashback to my mother’s final days. Both women were proud, didn’t want to be a “bother,” and private – very much products of their generation.

Experts in elder care stress how important social interaction is. These two women brought that advice home to me. My mother had retreated into herself, refusing her condo neighbour’s invitations to come for coffee even though they knew each other through church. Dottie and her husband had also been isolated, relying on their alarm system and a “secret knock” for family, not allowing the outside world in.

As I left Dottie’s room, I took a last glance at the tulips. Despite their mashed stems, I believed they looked ever so slightly perkier. I hoped Dottie did, too, but couldn’t help feeling sadness at this, her final loneliness.

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