Letter From Home 11/19/10

Bette deserved better.

As I was about to leave the assisted living facility where a friend of ours resides I noticed the newspaper article.  Taped on an office door was the face of Bette.  The picture was taken several years before I knew her.  Her hair was thicker but still snow-white. I had always envisioned Bette having white hair early in life as a genetic hand-me-down, and not just from the effects of aging.   Her smile in the picture was brighter than I ever knew it.  Her cheeks fuller.  The words that drifted below the picture were the ones that her family had penned for the obituary.

I had not known she had died.

I had spoken with Bette in the hallways of the facility and listened this spring and summer as she told about surviving bouts of cancer.  When she told me about the doctors suspecting she had lung cancer and needed to be tested all I could do was listen.  At some point words are trite, and for a veteran of the cancer wars as she was, I knew I had nothing to offer.  When the conversation was able to be turned gracefully I made attempts to produce some laughs and smiles.   I am finding in this facility that is more my strength.

Though my old-fashioned (some might say corny) humor has more of a chance with the men and women of Bette’s age there is no way to keep the smile pasted on the faces of those who live in such places. In these types of facilities merriment is not easy to come by, and never lasts long.  The reason is that many of these places where far too many older people live are really quite unprepared for much more than collecting the monthly payment. 

Harsh.  But true.

There are some very nice facilities where the best of care is provided.  The problem is that most people do not have the financial means to see their final years in such places. 

Bette would glide around in a mobility scooter that is often advertised on television.  I thought when seeing her roll towards me that the ads were so unbelievably deceiving.  The ads made it look like life was all one big bouncing moment where motorized rides would give a new lease on life.   The latest such television ad has a frolicking moment as a woman spins in her new chair and family surrounds her.  

Reality is of course far different.  No one gets such a chair without more pain and woes than one should have to shoulder.  In addition,  I suspect the television family never arrives with the chair.  As with batteries, families are not included.

It was from the chair that Bette would tell me about how the older man we look after was doing. After all, he is the main reason we stop in at this place.  He suffers from Alzheimer’s and at some point will move to a memory care unit.  I relied on Bette and others to give me information about his good and bad moments.  Bette always did so with razor-sharp clarity as her mind was as sharp as a new Bic shaver.

When the conversation would drift to other topics Bette would let me know the same thing I had heard from others I spoke with at this facility in Dane County.  There were hardly ever any fresh fruits or vegetables to eat.  The food was from cans, over-cooked, and tasteless.  Eating had once been so fun she told me one day.  I can still hear her say, ” I do not look forward to meals anymore.”  It was not because she was older, or sick.  She was just tired of being so removed from what she once knew, and felt should be provided in this place she now had to live.

After a life-time of making it to old age there really should be more than mushy processed food from institutional sized cans.  There really should be more for $3,400 dollars a month than to roam up and down gloomy hallways waiting to die.

As the baby boomers age, and live longer due to medical advances, more and more will find themselves in such places as the one Bette lived.

At some point down the road, when it is too late, these boomers will recognize that they did not put enough muscle into affecting change in these facilities by making demands of lawmakers.

At some point many will know full well why Bette deserved better.