LIVES LIVED … and REMEMBERED
I was working as an Registered Nurse in a beautiful, new Retirement Home. I was the Evening Supervisor. Part of each shift I took time to chat with residents, most often the women. This was as much for my sake as theirs. I loved hearing their stories. Some have stayed with me, some haunted me, some of their stories inspired. Some resulted in pity or incomprehension about how a person could live in this incredible world for decades and not be enticed to sample its wonders. Others sampled more than we will ever know.
Barbara was petite, bent with osteoporosis, but impeccable in her lovely, classic wardrobe of pale violet, powder blue, pink. Beautiful mohair shawls in delicious sherbet colours were within reach at the foot of her bed and carefully folded over the back of her comfortable upholstered chair. Weekly appointments with the in-house hairdresser kept Barbara well-groomed from top to toe.
Family photos and regular visits by her daughter indicated that Barbara was a much-loved and appreciated member of her family. The furniture in her room was all her own – quality pieces, chosen to fulfill a need in this newly downsized existence, pieces chosen to help Barbara feel at home.
The dresser was visible on the right wall as you entered her room. It told of another part of Barbara’s new life. In neat lettering, centered on the top front of every drawer, we’re labels to remind Barbara what lay inside … “Undergarments: Panties, bras, hose, girdles”. On another, “sweaters”, and so on. Barbara’s daughter had carefully created memory aides throughout her mother’s room, to make her life manageable … for the time being.
Edith, a lovely woman of considerable means and recently widowed, confessed to me with some embarrassment, that she had never written a cheque in her life. Imagine! Her husband had, for her entire married life, managed their finances to that extent. I was amazed. I wondered, but did not ask, if that seemed reasonable to her? Was it acceptable to her to be controlled to that extent? Her husband may have felt it was his duty to ‘take care of’ his wife. Whatever led to decades of unbalance in their relationship (my perception), I thought it sad.
Edith had never learned to drive and now found herself at this new and unfamiliar stage of her life, wondering how she would navigate her remaining years. She was attempting to live independently for the very first time but without her husband and their car, she felt imprisoned within the walls of her new home
How many women, who spent their lives in urban Ontario, Canada, in the early twentith century into the 1980’s, lived similar, limited lives? An educated guess would be that Edith’s situation was not at all uncommon. Thankfully, I benefited from a husband who believed in us each being all that we could be. And I had a strong, independent mother and grandmother who loved their families, but loved themselves even more.
Betsy lived a glamorous life as a fashion buyer for Sacs Fifth Avenue in New York. In the past, buying trips to Europe were the norm. Betsy was 85 years old, tall, with good bones, a friendly manner and a sense of humour. She carried herself with an easy elegance, but was warm and approachable. She wore clothing of good quality, understated clothes with flare. She had never married.
Betsy spoke easily, but seldom of herself, allowing her story to unfold over time. We spoke most often of music because it was a common interest. Betsy came from her large second floor room to the main lounge almost daily. She greeted staff and residents as she walked to the piano. With ease, she sat on the bench and mesmerized everyone within hearing distance. Love songs from 1920’s, musicals like New Moon, and compositions by Cole Porter wafted through the air.
I was in awe of her collection of sheet music. It was unbelievable to me, a serious music lover and a very unaccomplished pianist. Betsy allowed me to take her treasured sheet music to copy. It took me days on a large, table-sized photocopier. But the time was of no consequence to me because I was compiling a binder of some of the most beautiful music ever written, music that washed over you, curing all your ills.
There was a tough and gentile side to Betsy. She possessed a feistiness that I admired. She is probably the only lesbian of her generation that I had ever met. Of course, there may have been others, who kept that part of their lives quiet. Betsy spoke little of her ‘friend’ saying only that they had shared their lives for more than 40 years and she missed her.
I admired this lovely, gracious, sensitive, talented, confident, generous woman. I loved her story.
Anna came to us by ambulance one day. She was filthy and her strong smell was so horrific that the first thing I had the nursing aides do, was run a deep, hot bath. They shoved her clothing into a plastic bag and discarded everything.
Anna did not speak and in fact she appeared dazed, not aware of her surroundings. During the bath, the aides called me to come to the bathroom. They said there was something they wanted me to see. Attached to her few remaining pubic hairs were pubic lice, thick, juicy and plentiful. Some had dislodged and floated on the surface of the water. I had seen many things in my 20 years (to that point) of nursing, but never had I been responsible for someone so unkempt, so uncared for, so sad. Other critters were in her tangled and matted hair.
When found, Anna had been living alone in a rural shack, starving and in visible decline. Gradually, over the next couple of days, before she being moved to a permanent home, our staff cared for Anna, gradually building up her diet, from fluids, to hearty soups, to solids. I don’t recall that she ever spoke, but a tinge of blush came into her cheeks. And then she was gone.
Dementia began its tirade in Rose in a gentle way. Rose was tidy, motherly, quiet-spoken. She was someone’s wife, mother, grandmother. At this stage of her life, that is the only way she saw herself.
Rose seemed to feel caged in her room with no housewifery duties to tend so she made a larger world for herself within the retirement home. Throughout each day, Rose busied herself in the lounge on her floor, wiping around the sink, keeping everything clean and tidy. At other times, she would take the elevator to the main floor. There, a large dining room which could accommodate 100 residents, sat next to the spacious living room area. Rose whiled away many contented hours in the dining room, arranging cutlery in the large credenza, arranging salt and pepper shakers just so on each table and adding thoughtful touches everywhere.
Rose was no longer able to live in the home she cherished most of her life, but she continued her habit of usefulness, her need to make wherever she was, a home.
Susan was a retired teacher who routinely exhibited fear, confusion and sometimes frantic behaviour, a drastic contrast with her usual friendly elegance. Her colourful wardrobe of bright, monotones made her appear fresh as a summer day. I particularly recall her wearing yellow – a bright, fresh, canary yellow. But the brightness was now only on the exterior.
Susan had lost her ability to carry out even the most basic activities of daily living. Alzheimer‘s robbed her of an ability to recognize her own toothbrush. Nor did she recognize it’s purpose. One of the aides had to help Susan with every routine need. They took her to the toilet regularly, otherwise we might find her squatting and urinating in the corner of her washroom. The real function of the washroom was not entirely lost on her. She knew enough to go there when she felt the urge to void, but the toilet’s purpose was another matter.
Occasionally, at meal time in the large dining room, lucidity would emerge and a warm and friendly smile of recognition would occur. In those moments, Susan stood out, wearing her lovely colours, the gentle smile set in a pretty, heart-shaped face. On those days Susan was the focal point in the dining room.
Quiet, efficient, active – that was how we saw Margaret. Her car sat in the retirement home parking lot, ready for Margaret’s frequent outings. I don’t know that I ever knew much about Margaret’s comings and goings. She always seemed to have business and or ‘a life’ outside our doors.
At our Reception desk, a sign-in book sat ready to record all people arriving and all people leaving. Signing in and out was a requirement for many reasons. For one, It enabled staff to readily count heads in the event of a fire. Another good reason was clearly illustrated one evening when we realized that Margaret had not signed in by her self-determined return time.
Such irregularities were taken seriously and acted upon immediately. Staff checked her room. No Margaret. I called her family to see if she was there. They had no idea where she was. It was my responsibility to then notify the police that one of our residents was missing. I provided the make and licence plate number of her car.
After hour or two, the police arrived with Margaret wrapped in a blanket. They found her pulled over to the side of Highway 401 between Kitchener and Woodstock. The officers explained she was naked as the day she was born and all her clothing was strewn across the back of the car. They said Margaret seemed to be unharmed but very confused, completely oblivious to her surroundings.
The next day Margaret seemed the same as she always had, however the severity of her behaviour the previous evening demanded action. We arranged a family conference. Present were her doctor, the Administrator, a nurse and family. Margaret’s history indicated occasional ‘memory lapses’ and her family had argued for her licence to be revoked but her doctor refused to carry out such a ‘drastic’ step.
Now we felt confident that this latest episode would guarantee this desired result. Margaret’s family and our Administrator provided the doctor with strong arguments for finally revoking her licence … to no avail. The doctor felt Margaret’s rights should not be infringed upon in that way.
What about the public’s rights? Go figure!
Helen’s obvious, ‘comfortable’ status, which she wore with no apology, might have, in some people, been accompanied by haughtiness. But this was not the case with Helen.
She, unlike most residents, used her room mainly for sleeping and reading. The rest of the time she spent downstairs on the main floor, mingling with staff and other residents. Her favourite spot was the large, wing-backed, leather chair in the foyer across from the administration desk. There Helen sat … elegantly. Diamonds and emeralds twinkled on her fingers, ears and on the lapels of her beautifully cut, wool designer suits. She welcomed guests with charm and cheery, informative chatter. Helen was fully capable of expounding on entertainment, sports, politics and current events.
Regularly, Helen would hail a taxi and be off to visit her family or attend a concert. Her return brought with it a return of good conversation, the sparkle of gems, poise and an easy elegance.
One particular image in the Retirement Home stays with me. It is one of all the residents, each bearing their own problems, their aches and pains, some with fragile minds and bodies, arriving in the dining room for breakfast each morning. Some walked, some used canes, walkers or wheelchairs, yet they arrived fully dressed: the women in hose, bras, dresses or pant suits, many in heels; the men attired in dress pants, neat shirts and sweaters, or even 3-piece suits and laced brogues on their feet. Their unwillingness to compromise a lifetime of pride-in-self, their unwillingness to give in to weakness, their perseverance and disciplined nature spoke of a generation of real ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ that was nearing an end.
I often picture these admirable seniors in their rooms, some being assisted with their morning needs, others struggling on their own to make themselves ready for breakfast, despite crippled hands, poor vision, memory loss, severe arthritis in their hips, knees, in fact every joint. They came to our lovely Retirement Home, fully knowing that dressing gowns and slippers were not accepted in the dining room. Even had the dress code been more relaxed, I believe that their dignity would have prevented them from arriving on the main floor anything but fully dressed.
Those women and men left an indelible mark on me. We sometimes tread through our own lives feeling invincible, but their lives and stories illustrated the frailty and vulnerability of humanity and the unpredictability of life. Yet these same people were examples for me of living one’s life with humour and dignity, empathy and understanding, courage and strength.
Now in my sixties as I write this tribute to their lives, their stories allow me to enter this last stage of my own life without fear, with a sense of humour, and an ability to be accepting of whatever is in store.