I volunteer for an organization that helps elderly folk stay in their homes, mostly by providing transportation for shopping or medical appointments. Sometimes I meet a client only once and sometimes I get to form a long term relationship. Such was the case with Ethel.
Ethel. 87 years young when I met her. I took her grocery shopping once a week. She would always be waiting in her lobby for me to pick her. Always get in my car and start asking if she had her glasses. It became like a Burns and Allen routine. “I think I left them in my purse. Is my purse in your car?” No. “Well, never mind, I don’t need them.” “Oh, wait, where is my purse?” I don’t know. Do you want me to go upstairs and look? “No, no, I don’t need it. I have my wallet in my pocket.” “Wait, where’s my wallet?” In your pocket? “Oh, let me check. Oh look, here are my glasses!” And then she would laugh.
Same thing. Every week.
She had balance issues and needed to hang onto the shopping cart lest she teeter over. As time went on she got too wobbly to go shopping with me and would instead leave me a phone message with her shopping list. Every week she would list “fish, very thin” “milk, fresh” (as if I would get her old milk) “brussel sprouts, small”, etc. I delivered every Thursday between 3 and 4:00 and every week she never heard me ring the bell because she had on some evangelical channel so loud she could hear nothing else. Eventually she would come to the door yelling “who is it?” as if it was a surprise that I was there again and I would have to scream my name at least 5 times ("who is it?") before she would open the door.
She was a charismatic catholic with very strong beliefs and constantly told me she was praying for me. Occasionally I would deliver groceries while her aide was there and Ethel always told the aide that I did not believe in God. I would try to explain that that wasn’t quite true but I eventually gave up.
She could never quite understand my and Martha’s relationship. She once shared Easter dinner with us and spent most of it asking Martha “who are you again?” And almost every week she would ask me again about our relationship - “and who is she?”
When I first met Ethel her daughter was very ill with metastasized breast cancer and I asked her if she would like me to take her to visit. When we got there she wanted me to come in and meet her daughter who was in a hospital bed in the living room with her “live in” girl friend taking care of her. Her obituary and tombstone listed this “friend” as a long time companion. Yep, I don’t think Ethel quite understood that relationship either.
Recently Ethel, now 91, began falling in her apartment. Once she called to tell me that she had fallen and could not get up but not to call for help as she would be fine. Of course, according to protocol I called. The ambulance took her to the hospital where they did nothing for her. She was so angry with me she did not speak to me for 2 weeks. But the became worse and the senior complex she lived at said she would have to move to a nursing home, even though she was otherwise healthy. She was angry and devastated. She didn’t want to go. She was adamant but really had no choice. I promised I would visit and bring her favorite snacks - Nutella and mallomars. But I never had the chance. Less than two weeks after the move she died. I’m sure the loss of her independence killed her. She was a fiercely proud woman.
It has me thinking about what my future holds. It’s a little frightening. Statistics show that at least one person in a relationship will require long term hospital care. I don’t want it to be me but I don’t want it to be Martha either. I’m not sure which would be worse.
Still, I am a planner and one must be realistic. I have spent the last year getting all our financial affairs under one umbrella to make the tradition to our kids that much easier. And Martha and I recently did all the legal work to protect our assets should either of us need long term or nursing care. I am trying to get Martha to start the Swedish death cleanse - getting rid of excess stuff before you die, so other people don't have to do it for you. It is a struggle but she is at least trying.
Working with the elderly has given me a front row view to the final stages of life, particularly in their efforts to stay independent and maintain their dignity. I have seen lives end well, many not so well and some very painful and distressful. I suppose it is all a crapshoot no matter how well you think you have planned. Ideally I would like to die in my sleep like my grandmother and great grandmother and Ethel. They were mostly healthy and independent til the end and then quickly and quietly gone. But in case that is not in the cards I have some other options:
- My veterinarian, who is a dear friend who watched his father-in-law die and slow and painful death, has promised me the blue juice should I need it.
- My daughter who went to nursing school for a while tells me she knows how to put together a drug cocktail that would painlessly do the trick.
- Or, as my father used to tease, he wanted to die by being shot by a jealous lover. Sounds good to me.
Either way, I’m sure Ethel will be praying for me.