A Second Childhood?

When we have babies, we fully expect to have to take care of them, right? To change their diapers, to feed them, to calm them when they’re grumpy or sad, to make them laugh, to shield them from harm (as much as we can). But as I have been discovering this week, the expectations are really different when it comes to looking after the elderly.

Duncan’s elderly relative (whom we love dearly) fell on Saturday and couldn’t get up by herself. Her neighbour sounded the alarm when she noticed that she hadn’t picked up her newspaper by the regular hour. She was sent to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a cracked elbow and a broken hip. Or, should I say, misdiagnosed – since as it turned out the next day, no bones were fractured. She was also pumped full of an opiate that caused her to hallucinate dogs and cats in the emergency room and to confuse the floor with the ceiling.

Too weak to walk by herself, she was sent to a temporary rehabilitation facility, a beautiful place that looks more like a hotel than a hospital. The whole family breathed a sigh of relief: finally a place where she could rest and get stronger and (we thought to ourselves and discussed amongst ourselves) where she might be convinced to move to a senior’s residence.

This woman has no children. She has nieces in B.C. and Nova Scotia, but Duncan and I are her nearest relatives. As we quickly discovered at the rehab facility, that means we’re “family” – responsible for buying her toiletries, for bringing her clothes from home, and for answering the doctor’s questions. It’s a responsibility we are willing to undertake, but it’s complicated by the fact that we know so little about her or her affairs, and because we lack the strong, tough love of immediate families.

Fiercely independent all her life, She has become increasingly frustrated with her lack of control. She declared to me this morning (I had dropped by to bring her some mail, some more clothes, and her cane) that she would only speak to blood relatives from now on. Then she proceeded to talk to me for an hour about how she was going home (by 4:45 today). That if it meant that she climbed the 12 steps to the second floor for the last time, she would do it. That she would do it with or without my help. That she would rather lie in the same clothes in her own urine and feces than to stay in this place. Her imagery.

And I get it. I do understand what she’s saying. I tried to explain that I know that she wants to go home, yet I don’t think she’s strong enough to walk out the door of her room. Is it her right to go to a familiar place to die? She’s not even dying, though she certainly might if left in her apartment by herself.

Yesterday she offered to pay Duncan to look after her (I don’t think she understands how much help she needs), but Duncan’s not willing and, frankly, doesn’t have time. In trying not to be a burden, she is being (unwittingly) selfish. But does she have the right to go and die on her own if she really wants to? Apparently not. I’m just so confused and frustrated.

I told the head nurse on my way out that if she needs it, I have the key to her apartment. But I told the receptionist that if she sees an old lady in a hospital gown trying to leave, to please stop her.

We try to keep our children safe because they don’t know any better. But what of the elderly? What if they don’t want to be safe? Do we let them fall?

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