It takes a village
It takes a village to raise a child. But it also takes a village to help an elderly adult flourish during their last chapter of life. In this column, I have written frequently about my friend Tracy’s elderly mother, Dixie. She celebrated her 99th birthday on August 22nd. She died one week later, in her sleep, at the home of her son and daughter-in-law after living with them for almost 8 years.
Dixie’s story is not unusual. As an elder adult, her husband passed away years earlier in his mid-70’s, and she lived alone for some time. But as she moved into her 90’s, she was no longer able to drive, her friends had passed away or moved, and she was alone. She lived across the country from her son and daughter and they both worried about her. She would never agree to come and live with either child. She was fiercely independent despite her growing frailty and cognitive decline. Like many older adults, Dixie couldn't wrap her head around making any change.
Her daughter-in-law flew down to Florida, scooped Dixie up, and brought her to Everett for a “visit”. Her stay lasted 7 and half years! During those years, Dixie frequently commented that she would be going home soon, but her family convinced her that she was needed—to help with her great-grandchildren that lived nearby who were frequent visitors.
In Florida, she was housebound—but at her son and daughter-in-law’s she delighted in going out. She was reborn at 91. Her son retired from a long career as a physician in Everett to help take care of his mom. He commented to me— “She was a wonderful mother. I wanted her last years to be secure and comfortable”. It was a big decision and a big sacrifice—not one that is practical for everyone.
Once a week, my friend, Dixie, and I had lunch at a local restaurant. These outings gave her daughter-in-law some time off and added to Dixie’s life. But it also was an addition to my life as well. Helping an older adult have a more meaningful and worthwhile old age is a privilege.
The Sunday before she died, I went over to my friend’s house to “elder sit” so he and his wife could go out to dinner with friends. In the last several months, Dixie’s function had steeply declined. She couldn't walk unassisted, she slept most of the day and went in and out of awareness. Her breathing had become more rapid and she occasionally had chest pain. She was coming to the end of her long life. My friends could no longer leave her alone and were providing end of life care. Caring for Dixie had become considerably more difficult.
That Sunday, I helped Dixie with the few mouthfuls of food she would eat and sat next to her, talking about the few topics from the distant past that she often repeated. She reminded me “that there’s nothing wrong with me!” and that she would soon be going back to her home in Florida. I played some music from the 40’s that she might remember. She smiled and told me that she used to love to dance with her husband, as we listened to the Glenn Miller band. She was peaceful, content, and comfortable.
Three days later, sitting in her chair in the living room, asleep, she stopped breathing. Her long visit was over.
We held her memorial service during the labor day weekend, four days after her death—five of her grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, a small number of family friends, and her son and daughter attended.
This small village, that sustained her, nurtured her and gave her a sense of purpose in her final years gathered to remember this loving and shining matriarch, who had joined the generations before her.