Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D.

Meaningful You

A New Life at 96

"Is that man smoking?" my mother asked of the Bob Marley poster.

Posted Oct 09, 2012

Image: Flickr/Moyan_Brenn

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. Linda G. Beeler, LCSW, submits this post:

Three years ago, at age 96, my mother stated that her loneliness was unbearable and her meaningful connections were gone. The pain of her isolation was intolerable.  She had lived independently and had retired from New York to Florida about twenty five years ago. My father passed away about 15 years ago. Since the death of my father, she had lost two of her sisters, her brother, and recently her closest friend. Her baby sister of 90 years old, moved to a nursing home in upstate New York.  

She was ready to move back to New York and wanted to live with my family in our apartment in NYC.  My two sons were away at college and it was possible for her to live in their room.  Her internist in Florida stated to me, if you placed her in a home she would emotionally fade away.   He stated she needed to continue to be active, and to live close to family because she was healthy, vital, strong and had her full faculties.

I flew down to Florida to bring her to New York to live with my family. I helped her pack up her belongings. Oddly, I thought, she did not even take any photographs.  I felt overwhelmed with sadness and I scrambled around her home to find the most meaningful and sentimental family items.  I took my father's framed Bronze Star medal from World War II and her family photograph albums.  My heart was filled with sadness as my mother left behind her beautiful home.  Surprisingly, she did not look back or reflect on the past.  She just told several friends that she was going to New York to get reacquainted with her children.  It seemed that her feelings were kept at bay or was it that she was already accustomed to the losses?

We embarked on a new journey together in New York City.  My mother lived in my sons' room for the next two and half years surrounded by adolescent paraphernalia from every style of trendy sneakers to a giant paper mache statue of Michael Jordan, to a poster of Bob Marley.   She never complained that she slept in the bottom of a bunk bed in a teenagers' room.  She was grateful to be surrounded by family.   

My mom was healthy for her age.  Her memory, both short and long-term, was intact.  Although she walked slowly, she was steady on her feet and did not need to use a walker or even a cane.  My mother had some problems initially adjusting as she wanted to be entertained and active all the time.  She was vital, strong-willed, determined and independent.

During the first few weeks in New York, I encouraged her to pursue her interests. She joined the Jewish Community Center (JCC) and the JASA senior center, both of which were, fortunately, only a half a block from my apartment.  Because of her determination, she insisted on walking by herself to the centers.   At the JCC, she played mahjong, and canasta, and entered mahjong tournaments.  After playing mahjong the first year at the JCC, she would come home feeling frustrated since she had difficulty finding a regular game with the same group (the women were much younger).

I felt overprotective of her.  I thought it was similar to feeling protective of a child who wants to fit in and belong.  Because of her perseverance and strong will, she didn't give up and returned to play weekly.  After a year, she came home and said, I found regular mahjong game with the same women.  She was finally accepted at the age of 97!   She developed a network of friends at the JCC who would call the house asking about her if she missed a day.  At the JCC, my mother was one of several women who were interviewed for a CBS News’ story on the actress Betty White, and the secret of living a long active living life. My mother attributed her longevity to “playing mahjong, and canasta. I'm always busy doing something.”  Mahjong was her savior as well as mine!

I attempted to make her last years an emotionally rich experience. 

We enjoyed weekends together.  She went with my husband and I to our country home in the Berkshires.  We went to Tanglewood.  At Tanglewood, I thought it would be daunting to get her to the lawn.  However, we parked in the handicapped parking lot and the staff swiftly put her in a motorized car and then a wheel chair and took her to the lawn. She saw a lovely James Taylor and Carole King concert under the stars.  At the end of the concert, there were fireworks!  My mother had never experienced an outside concert.  Other weekends, we went to the Clark museum, movies, and dining out.  

At the age of 99 she was hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer.  In view of her age, there was little to do to except to make the last months of her life more comfortable.  She was given home hospice care through Calvary hospice.  I was overwhelmed with the idea of having hospice care in my apartment.  Part of me wanted to place her in a nursing home.  I was resistant to my home becoming a nursing facility.  I was scared because I did not feel capable of providing the care my mother needed.  I was very afraid of witnessing her deterioration and her death.  I asked my mother what she wanted to do.  She looked at me and said, "I want to go home. We will manage. We have managed up to now. "  At that moment, I shifted my thinking and embraced the idea of having Calvary care for her in my home.

The Calvary home hospice nurses walked me through all the steps of home hospice care.  When my mother first got home from the hospital, she was still able to get around. She even returned to the JCC to play mahjong. The other players welcomed her with a standing ovation!  Gradually, however, she began to decline.  I was still resistant to turning my home into a medical facility. I was reluctant to follow the recommendations of the Calvary staff of having a portable commode, a hospital bed and an oxygen tank in case of emergency in the apartment.  However, as my mother declined, I realized that I was going to have to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what would happen.  I overcame my resistance and acceded to the Calvary recommendations.  I realized that my mother's comfort was more important than my squeamish feelings.   When my mother had difficulty swallowing, I kept her mouth moist, and swabbed her mouth with tea, juice, and chocolate gelato.  She loved chocolate!!

One night the home health aide called me into her room telling me that my mom was seeing "smoke".  I thought, "Is she hallucinating?"  Up to that time, she had all her faculties. I sat down on her bed.  My mother pointed to the Bob Marley poster.  She said "is that famous man smoking?"   He was, in fact, smoking a joint.  She had looked at this poster for  three years and never asked until then!

 My son, Jonathan said, she lived a long life because of her stubbornness, tenacity, and perseverance.  My son, Brandon said she just kept going and was like a machine that would not break.  I had been scared of witnessing the death of my mother. I am glad that I was able to be with my mother through the end of her journey.  At 99 years, just 8 months short of a century, she died in my home surrounded by family and the Bob Marley poster.  It was a peaceful passage.  She died with grace and dignity!  It was an emotionally rich life cycle journey and a humane and liberating experience.

By Linda G. Beeler, LCSW

Psychotherapist in private practice, New York City

Beeler9188@gmail.com

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