Little Lady Edith and Katrina Curled Into a Ball
Each night little lady Edith would stutter meekly I love you as I tucked her into bed. But for these words, she could not speak – or though she tried, you could not understand her for the slow and incomprehensible tremor of her voice. And you could see the frustration in her eyes, wanting to be understood, that hopeless plea. Edith had no family, or if she did they had long abandoned her. I knew her as a lonely and solitary figure shuffling up and down the hallway pushing her walker with little tennis balls on its pegs.
In the room next door lived the tiniest woman whose name was Katrina. She was one-hundred-and-four and curled into a perpetual ball, so stiff with age. She prayed all day aloud, Please let me die, please let me die, Oh Lord please let me die, let me die. You couldn’t uncurl Katrina. I would roll her onto her back to clean her and her arms and legs would point straight into the air. She had reverted to a fetal position in anticipation of death. She prayed constantly for death and spoke only this unending prayer.
This was life at Columbine Care Center. It was called an assisted living resident facility, but it was a nursing home, and it felt more like an orphanage – a home for the aged and decrepit where sons and daughters could unshoulder themselves from the burden of nurturing a parent through infirmity or old age. In our culture, you can relieve yourself of the ‘duty to care’ with absolute immunity from conscience or judgement. It is part of the Western philosophy. Nursing homes are an accepted surrogate domicile for the elderly. Some cultures consider this deplorable. And maybe it is.
I was a nursing assistant at Columbine Care Center and I learned quickly that my job—although technically to feed and bathe residents, to change soiled sheets and scrub dentures and shave faces, to take vitals and record urine outputs and clean catheters—was more so to fulfill the needed role of ‘loved one.’
It can be terribly lonely to grow old.
Many of the patients at Columbine had outlived their spouses and friends. Many were alone. Some had broken families. A few had children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren who would in fact visit. You could label these residents by their energy, ‘life’ as we call it, a purpose, a sense of belonging. You can feel such energy in a creature.
Katrina was utterly alone. She wasn’t much more than a husk of life. And yet her little candle flickered on. Her heart was just too strong to give up. There was but a hint of life left in her, and now and again you could infuse a child’s song into her prayer, and then she would sing, Old McDonald had a farm, please let me die, let me die, let me die.
No one is taught how to age gracefully.
We try to maintain dignity as our bodies wither. I know that elderly patients need guidance through this transition. Perhaps more importantly they need the peace of mind of belonging. But some people need more than this. Some people need to be in a nursing home with round-the-clock medical supervision. And, for what it’s worth, its own kind of community.
I remember the relief in her eyes at night when I said I love you too, Edith, now go to sleep and I’ll see you tomorrow. I guess she didn’t feel so alone then – that somebody understood the only three words she could articulate.
She snuck out one night. Out of Columbine Care.
She shuffled down the street with her tennis-ball walker and somehow ended up at a fraternity party. A carload of rowdy college students brought her back at 2 a.m. and she was a big old smile, the belle of the ball, little lady Edith getting down at a college kegger.
Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd year (OMS II)
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences