A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterGoogle+Share on LinkedIn

Last weekend I had the privilege of accompanying my aunt on the final days of her life. Long burdened with Alzheimer’s disease,  Aunt Ruth turned 94 on Friday, accompanied by a staff member who had stayed late Thursday night so she could be the first to wish her a happy birthday. On Saturday night at 11 p.m. she took her last breath, with another staff member by her side.

One of the longest residents of Fenelon Court, the long term care residence where she spent the final years of her life, Ruth was loved by the staff, who called her Ruthie, her childhood name I had only heard in family stories. She was the youngest of my father’s five siblings and the last to leave. She was spunky, spirited, outspoken, generous, and loving.

When we arrived from Ottawa on Friday, she was somnolent, no longer responding to visitors or staff. I had brought my ukulele with me on the trip, and knowing that hearing is the last sense to leave, I set myself up by her bedside and began to play. Whether she could hear me I’ll never know, but I like to think that the music of Leonard Cohen (Hallelujah) and the gentle words of The Water is Wide provided her with comfort on her journey.

As I played, staff came in and out of the room to check on Ruth, and to offer drinks or food to me. Each time they entered, I was struck by their gentle caring and familiarity with “Ruthie.”

“She’ll do it in her own time,” one nurse commented. “You always have, haven’t you Ruthie.”

On Saturday we spent much of the day with Ruth, giving my eldest sister a much-needed respite from the long days she had been spending by her side. Once again, I sang, shared birthday cards and stories with Ruth, reminders of the love that surrounded her. When we finally went back to our hotel at 9, one of the nurses reassured us that she would sit with Ruth. She remained at her side until she died.

The next morning we returned with my sister Judy to begin cleaning our Ruth’s room. Ruth’s body was still there, and I was glad for my years of hospice volunteering that helped it seemed perfectly natural. As I remarked on the volume of clothes in her closet, I couldn’t help but notice their beautiful condition – another tribute to the careful attention of the staff.

As we prepared to walk out with the people from the funeral home, a staff member lay a quilt over her body, and as we walked slowly to the front door, staff members throughout the building lined the halls, a gesture of respect I recognized from my own hospice.

Though I am writing this post to honour Aunt Ruth, I am also honouring the amazing staff at Fenelon Court. When I knew she was in a long term care facility, I had an image of hallways filled with patients sleeping slumped over in wheelchairs, a certain smell permeating the building. I had witnessed these scenes in other long term care facilities, and I was dreading seeing my aunt in such a place.

Fenelon Court could not have been farther from those expectations! The building is bright and clean, the patients engaged in activities where possible, and attended to with care in every encounter I witness. “We are their family,” one nurse told me. “Often they have a son or daughter who rarely visits. We are here every day and we love them. They’re our family too.”

Perhaps it’s because the facility has only 67 residents – and it is designed in pods so each area is relatively small and contained. Perhaps it’s because it is located opposite an elementary school and children often visit the centre, sharing drawings, Easter activities, and joy with the residents. Perhaps it’s because it’s located in a small town, a place where community really matters. But I think there’s something more – something I can’t quite put into words – beyond respect, dignity, caring, and love. That’s what I experienced with my aunt last weekend. And for that I am enormously grateful.

Join Us on Huddol

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterGoogle+Share on LinkedIn
About the Author

Katherine Arnup

Katherine Arnup is a writer, life coach, hospice volunteer, and retired university professor. Her latest book, “I don’t have time for this!” A Compassionate Guide to Caring for Your Parents and Yourself, provides a roadmap for people on the caregiving journey. She is the author of the award-winning book, Education for Motherhood: Advice for Mothers in Twentieth-Century Canada, editor of the first book on lesbian families in Canada (Lesbian Parenting: Living with Pride and Prejudice) and author of more than three dozen articles on marriage, motherhood, lesbian and gay families, aging, death and dying. As a life coach, Katherine provides compassionate, caring, and courageous support for people dealing with major transitions and for families and individuals dealing with aging, illness, and end of life issues. You can also read more of Katherine's writing at her blog, Hospice Volunteering. Contact: katherine@katherinearnup.com

4 Comments

  1. Thank you Katherine for this beautiful post. I was with my mother when she died, and I wish I could say the same wonderful things about the staff at the LTC facility where she had spent the final years of her life. Sadly, I can’t. And I think many others are in the same position I am. In fact, I’m of the opinion that neglect and abuse are more common than the kind of care you describe in your post. I hope things change so that more people have experiences like yours.

    Here’s a poem I wrote about being with my mom when she died: https://myalzheimersstory.com/2016/08/20/dying-with-my-mom/

  2. Katherine — thank you for your post — I’m sorry for your loss, but it certainly seems like Aunt Ruth had a good life and a good death. Your presence with your ukelele must have given her peace and even pleasure.
    I also want to say thank you for your comments on the staff at this facility. Too often the people who make up the day to day “family” of people in long term care go unnoticed. I’m sure your recognition of their devotion means a great deal to them. Unsung heroes.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Adrienne. I agree completely about the unsung heroes, and I felt it was really important to honour the amazing care they provided for Ruth. As several of the staff said, “we are their family.” And they treated the residents as they might their own loved ones (or at least that’s how it seemed to me… and judging from the reaction I’ve had to my piece, it seems to be an accurate assessment).
      I feel very blessed to have been able to travel with my aunt on her final journey and to share that experience with my sister and the wonderful staff members.
      All the best,
      Katherine
      https://hospicevolunteering.wordpress.com
      https://katherinearnup.com

Leave a comment