Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Who They Used to Be

As many of you already know, my mum recently passed away...less than 3 weeks ago in fact.  She spent the 2 months before her death back and forth between hospitals and convalescence homes.  The original reason she landed there in the
first place, was a simple broken arm.  An injury that would've seen a younger, healthier person, in and out of the hospital the same day.  
That was not the case for my mum, who at 80 years old had a whole load of health problems including diabetes, stage 4 congestive heart failure and she was a dialysis patient for the past 5 years.

Although her body was worn out, her mind was still very sharp.
During the course of her hospital stay, my mum picked up a virus, later to be confirmed as C difficile.  One of the affects this had on my mum was hallucinations and then, temporarily losing her ability to speak. 
Though I've had to watch my mum deal with so many health issues over the years, this was the strangest to witness.

She was sent from our local hospital to Surrey Memorial, where she'd be able to receive her dialysis treatments right at her bed, instead of having to be transferred back and forth 3 times a week, which was hard to do in her condition.
The first nurse that I spoke to once she was transferred there, was giving me a run down of the care they'd be giving my mum, rehab for her arm, dialysis times etc.
She was a lovely person and made me feel happy that my mum was now in a place where I could see she'd be getting better care. 
I asked the nurse when my mum's confusion would clear up and when would she start talking again.
She kind of looked puzzled at me, I think the assumption was, that's just how my mum already was. 
She tried to ask my mum a few questions, 'did she know she was in Surrey now?', my mum nodded yes. 
Then she said, 'your daughter is here, do you know her name?', my mum mumbled my name...which to the nurse, sounded like gibberish, but I smiled at the nurse and said, 'she got it right, my name is Melanie.'  I could tell my mum's 3 distinct syllable gibberish was her attempt to say my name.
The nurse, looking happy said, 'oh that's good, she knows your name.'  I could tell she thought she was delivering some great news to me, like it was a break through.  I explained to her, that's not normal for my mum.  'Oh, it's not?!' she replied. 
I said, 'no, my mum normally reads at least a novel a week, writes 30-60 letters a month and yaps to everyone.
She looked shocked at me, and I could tell, that she just assumed, that here comes another 'old and confused' lady, and I'm certainly not blaming her for that assumption.  
I'm sure week in and week out, she deals with many elderly people in that very state.
It's most likely an assumption we've all made at times.  We look at old people and define them in their current condition, because let's face it, that's usually all we have to go on.
It really reminded me, to sometimes look at elderly people and think, 'I wonder who they used to be?'

I first had that thought years ago when working at a lottery booth that had many seniors as customers.  I was serving a regular customer and we got chatting, she happened to ask where I lived.  When I told her, her face lit up and she said to me, 'oh I used to go dancing at the hall there all the time in the 30's, I have so many wonderful memories from that time.
Instantly it made me view her differently, she wasn't just the sweet, white-haired old lady that came to buy scratch tickets from me, she was a woman who used to get dressed up in her finest and go to the dance hall with her friends every Friday night.  

When I've glance through obituaries in my local paper, especially of men and women who've served in the military, I am also transported to who they 'were', I no longer just view them as 'old people' but I become intrigued by the lives they used to live.
I look at deep into the eyes of the photo and imagine what they looked like when they were young....in the trenches, flying a plane, fighting on the front-lines.

The day before my mum passed away, she was transferred to the emergency department and for the most part she just slept. So while sitting beside her bed, I would often pass the hours by looking around at the other elderly people there and try to imagine who they used to be.  
In my own silly way, I felt like it was giving these people back a little of the dignity we all lose when in those situations.  While lying in beds, wearing those gowns that let's face it, flatter no one, with only a curtain to give you privacy from your neighbours and feeling at our most vulnerable. 
I think many older people just feel forgotten there.

Nobody wants their worst moments to define who they are.
I think too often, we as a society just write off older people as just that, old, forgetting they too were once young, full of life, not confused, able to think quickly, move quickly and had no need for help with any tasks, especially the little things like opening a door.  We all see ourselves as we are/were in our prime even if the body no longer represents that.  

It has to be a very frustrating transition, but maybe if we try to imagine them as who they used to be, we might all be a little more considerate with our time and understanding.
Perhaps that old man in the wheelchair, used to be a strong firefighter that others use to depend on and in his mind, he still views himself that way.

One day when I was picking my mum up from dialysis, I watched from a distance an old frail man getting on the scale as they all have to do after their treatment. 
I remember thinking, he looked like a pretty cool old dude, he was wearing jeans and a black t.shirt...as he got off of the scale, and grabbed his walker, I notice that on the back of his t.shirt it said, 'Old Guys Rock!'.
Ha, that absolutely made my day!
There was no doubt in my mind, that who he was, was still who he is!
Great lesson there.