Friday, June 19, 2020

That Final Stage of Life

Dear Friends,

I hope you're well in these challenging and difficult times.

This was going to be one long post but there is a lot to say so I am posting a section now and the next one when I can. This is a personal story along with some lessons.

I previously mentioned our elderly family member, ”Terry.” I chose a name not gender-specific so as to protect privacy. For this post, since Terry has died, I will use the pronoun “she” to make writing a little easier.

My husband has said that one of the last lessons we learn from our elders is how to live toward the end of life and how to die. I’ve thought about that a lot and this is why I decided to write about Terry and our lessons learned.

Terry was a professional. She started working right out of school and took time off when she had a child. She rose through the ranks due to her skills and ability to work with top executives and organize their work-lives. She was an avid reader with an extensive vocabulary and amazing memory for stories, names and places, and she knew how people and events shaped history. She loved to travel and did so for as long as she could.

Prior to a terrible diagnosis, I saw some signs of change. We took a long ride together as we went for her hearing aids and for the first time Terry was searching for words, sometimes sounding close to her intention but not quite there. Her house and clothes were neat and clean and there were no stacks of papers.

Yet something was wrong.

I was not sure what was happening and I had not been around many people in their late 80’s. There were some other signs showing me she needed to live nearby and have more assistance. We started researching places to live near us as we have limited space and stairs leading to the bedrooms and full bath. I read a lot during this time and could see certain needs might arise for which we would be unprepared if we scrambled at the last moment.

She had a health emergency and the decision was made for us. 

We researched several facilities and together we looked at them, discussing pros and cons, reading reviews and helping her make decisions. Terry had a beautiful house and a lot of furniture doesn’t fit into those smaller places. {Related post about “stuff.”

Through the National Association of Move Managers, we found a great service and they helped sort through possessions without the emotional component and managed reminiscing respectfully. With a new floor plan, together they decided the layout in advance and the professional packed, moved, unpacked and placed items in the right places.

There was a lot of resistance and heartbreak over letting go of a life of independence and decision-making without needing input from others. I can sympathize and cannot imagine how difficult this is for anyone making these decision.

Terry moved near us, and it’s a good thing we selected a local community. I learned immediately she needed help in a new environment and I made appointments for her and went to them, sitting in the room and reminding staff and doctors to speak a little louder and I provided information Terry did not share. With a vision problem and another condition making it difficult, I started managing the checkbook and would point to the line for Terry to sign. Good thing I’m honest!

Terry had good jobs and saved and invested covering the expenses of living in the facility. She had retired with a package supplementing Medicare and, having seen the bills pre-and-post insurance payments, it was a relief to know she had good coverage.

We saw Terry through many emergency room visits, hospitalizations, a care-worker in her home and finally memory care. I learned not to walk over to see Terry but take the car as I never knew what kind of condition she would be in. There were several times we thought “this is it” and then she rallied.

Her geriatrician had started a home visit program as many patients found it difficult to go to the office. That final doctor’s visit, I arrived early and Terry had not eaten much so we talked and I used the fork and started feeding her and she took a few more bites. I searched for conversation to have and knew she had visited Florida. I asked if they’d ever gone and do you remember the trip. There was a flood of memories with places and sights they had seen along the way and the most coherent conversation we’d had in some time. Before I left I stroked her hair, kissed her forehead several times, told her I loved her. She was looking at me and I felt she went from fully present to maybe being half here, half slipping into haziness. I wondered did she still know this was me or did she think I might be her mom as I was doing motherly things: feeding, kissing, stroking her cheek and hair. 

She died a few days later. We waited for the Neptune Society while in her room with her and talked about her life, her experiences, our great times together and all of her accomplishments. We were there about 4 hours. It gave us time to just sit together, take this in, celebrate her life and mourn her passing. We had selected a spot for the ashes in advance so we did not have those decisions to make.

Next time I will write about planning for this stage of life and later I’ll talk about the emotional part.

Take care,