Sarah isn’t always with it. At 88 years of age, her mental agility has declined nearly linear to her physical abilities. She follows a walker around most days, sometimes not knowing or caring where it takes her. She lives in a room with an elderly woman who spends most of her day in bed. Her roommate no longer talks, but she moans- softly to loud then back to soft many times a day.
A big difference between Sarah and her roommate is that Sarah has a family. Six children, a couple dozen grandchildren, and oodles of friends, remember Sarah as having literally hung the moon. Sarah’s pre-nursing home life was of love and encouragement, and devotion. If Sarah had a calling, it was to mother hen her family. If one strayed, she’d rustle around and shoo the fold all back together. So committed to family, it was the only thing she cared to talk about. She’d call her kids frequently like clockwork. She’d email her friends with words of encouragement. She’d take pity on the lonely and throw big birthday parties for them. She’d find the slimmest of excuses to go to Starbucks with a granddaughter and spend the hour just listening. Are you beginning to see why everyone loved Sarah?
Sarah edges her walker to the lone chair in her nursing home room. Sarah is having a good day. Now sitting, she slowly scans the big picture standing on the table of her entire family. Tears add to her thick watery eyes as her scan goes from face to face. Today, she remembers every name — even the names of her three great-grandchildren. She hasn’t seen any of them in months. She closes her eyes and sobs.
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”― Lois Lowry
Sarah’s phone rings. It’s an old-school phone with a curly cord and connected to a wall. The ring is loud to offset the assumed diminished hearing of old people and loud enough to wake up her roommate. But she doesn’t awake.
“Hellow,” Sarah answers. Her ‘hello’ is so distinctive, the grandchildren use it just to tease her. The same for her ‘goodbye.’ It’s a “good” with the “bye” said in two octaves. It starts high but ends low. Her nephews and nieces will say to one another, “goodby-ye,” and ask, “who is it?” “Aunt Sarah,” they answer, followed by a good chuckle. That’s how young people love on old people… they tease them. Grandma Sarah was always being teased and loved every moment of it.
“I’m doing pretty good today, darlin. Thanks for calling.” It was Sarah’s youngest daughter. She calls her momma once a week and can always tell when her momma was having a good day or a bad day. On bad days her conversation is slower. She struggles to find the right words and can’t seem to remember some of the names of people that come up in the conversation. On good days, she’s curious and wants to know how all the kids are doing and whether her cousin Hilda is still alive. Cousin Hilda is even older than Sarah, and her health is failing.
“When are you going to come and visit me, sweetheart?” pleads Sarah. She waits for the answer again. She’s asked her daughter this question every week for months. She asks everyone who calls. “I don’t know, mother.”
After a pause in the conversation, Sarah whispers, “I’m lonely. My roommate just moans, and I’m not able to leave my room. It’s like being a prisoner in here, sweetheart. My food is delivered to me, and I eat alone. The TV is no friend- it just repeats the same thing over and over. Oh, oh dear… you should see my hair!”
The daughter stays quiet this time. She’s tried to explain to her mother why she needs to stay isolated during the pandemic. Sometimes mother seems to understand, and sometimes she doesn’t. Her pleas are getting more desperate. “Mother, I’ve asked to take you home with me. The facility is ok with that, but they warn me that you might not get back in. The family is split about even whether to get you out of there. I don’t know what to do, mother.” Another pause.
“Hilda died, mother. Graveside services were this morning.” Sarah starts to sob at the news.
“There was no funeral, no visitation, just a small gathering at the gravesite, momma.”
Something flickered in Sarah. What had been a good day was clouding over. Perhaps it was the news of cousin Hilda. Maybe it was the despair of her loneliness. Who knows these things? Her speech slowed, and she nearly forgot who had called her. She quit sobbing and went mostly quiet. Her daughter picked up on the change immediately.
“Mother, is there anything I can bring you?”
There is a category of death called ‘death by despair.’ It is what happens when someone loses the will to live, and as a result, just dies. There’s rarely a readily apparent medical cause for it. Just a broken heart or a broken soul for those cases not caused by the loss of a loved one. In 2017, it was estimated that over 155,000 Americans died from despair in that year. Nearly everyone who has worked in an adult living facility has seen it.
It is hard to know how many Sarah’s languish in loneliness because of COVID-19 or how many Hilda’s are buried with loved ones not allowed to publicly express their love and respect or share their memories. Millions?
Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you. -Carl Gustav Jung
This pandemic has been devastating to our elderly. If they were considered ‘shut-in’ before, they are now ‘locked down.’ Many have come to think a ‘locked down’ life is not really living. To be deprived of the touch and hug of loved ones is to be left with little. There is no joy in eating alone, and TV offers no real companionship. It is nothing but numbers and deaths repeated and only interrupted by images of screaming people angry with which lives matter.
Some adult facilities are finding ways for families to reunite carefully. Individuals and organizations are finding ways to reach out to the lonely. A friend and his antique car club recently drove through the parking lots of a dozen adult facilities in his community, honking horns and holding up signs of encouragement. Bruce and his buddies put smiles on Sarah and hundreds of other faces. God bless you, Bruce!