As December ended, my heart ached. It was a difficult time. I spent far too much time in the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. I was there with an elderly parent, and for the many of you who have lived the experience, I know you know how challenging it can get.
At which age you live the experience can actually change how you react to it. I met many people in the hospital between 65 and 70, who, like me, were visiting their 90-year-old-plus parents, so mentally and physically compromised by nothing more complicated than old age. When you are a visiting senior citizen you take note of life in a geriatric ward. You can’t help but fearfully imagine being there yourself.
The term “visitor” is actually a euphemism for being there to help your hospitalized parent because the geriatric department is not a baby sitting service for old people. It is a department that delivers care at appointed times of the day. It’s too bad if a patient needs something at any other time. So many desperate cries for help were ignored that I almost got used to it.
Spend a few weeks on the geriatric floor and you get the rhythm and the personalities. You get to be on a first name basis with a 20-year veteran of the geriatric cleaning staff who has seen thousands of families go through this. Her realistic look always tells you to get a grip because people in their 90s have serious issues, and you have to emotionally toughen up and step up to the plate.
The geriatric ward is often a place where patients stay until they are placed in long-term care homes. There was a little Haitian woman who had been there since June. She called men like me “Papa” and spent her days taking chairs from the lounge and piling them up in her room. Every other day, hospital employees went to take the chairs back. The woman screamed loudly and repeatedly to call the police.
There was a Russian man who shuffled through with a hospital gown not tied in the back with his diaper in full view. He wore a black velvet kippah all week, but, somehow, it was not always there on Shabbat.
There was a Holocaust survivor who fell twice in one day at her seniors’ residence and broke her neck. This 93-year-old was in a full neck brace. Her cries for help were louder than anyone’s. So loud that sometimes someone on the medical team would actually peer in and ask her what was wrong, but rarely did anyone respond in an active way.
There was a good-looking male patient who was quiet most of the time, but, when he wasn’t, you wanted to stay clear. When he got upset, he became really angry and often yelled terribly insensitive insults at his visiting wife. But, in a huge public institution with so little privacy, there is no reason to feel shame. All kinds of things happen in a day, until the next day, when it starts all over again.
I remember the movie “Hurricane,” in which boxing champion Rubin Carter, wrongly convicted of a triple homicide, refused to wear his prison uniform in protest. There was a woman in the geriatric floor who absolutely insisted on getting dressed every morning.
After the clothes were fussed over, this 91-year-old, who still has the trace of an athlete’s body, meticulously did her make-up, her hair and her nails. She didn’t say a lot as she did this daily routine. She just defiantly said it must be done.
With all the dignity she could muster, in a place where dignity is not easy to cling on to, this incredibly tenacious person set out on a daily mission to defy the odds. But she didn’t succeed because no one could. It was just that kind of terrible place and sad circumstance.
But, through it all, this elderly woman kept her head high and her shoulders back as she marched, with her walker, up and down the hospital corridors. People noticed her determination and her beauty.
If I have learned anything about my mother these recent weeks, it is how hard she will fight to remain the strong willed, proud person, she has always been.