I buzz the entry alarm, and the nurse opens the door. I see Doris sitting alone, staring out the window, the morning sun casting shadows on her face. I walk to her chair and kneel.Her skin is black and smooth, belying her decades of life. A dark black wig framed by a few remaining gray straggles of hair covers her head, bare from age and the pull of lifelong braids. Her legs, swollen from hours in a wheelchair and the failure of her heart, spill from shorts tight around waterlogged thighs. A worn wedding band sits on the fourth finger of her left hand, the only visible suggestion of a life long past. Her words, of which there are few, are garbled, the remnants of broken and missing teeth and a dry, cracked tongue.“Dr. Paul, why you be comin’ to see me? I be jus’ fine.”“I know you are Miss Doris, I just want to be sure your blood pressure, sugar diabetes, and arthritis are okay.”Doris is a widowed 92‐year‐old woman who lives in a nursing home—in the Memory Center—where she is quickly losing thoughts and time. Like many in the upper numbers of life, her memory has become fragmented and disorganized, her existence confused and muddied. Still, there are words that seem cemented, safe from loss, but perhaps they are nothing more than imprinted refrains—like when she greets me.“Dr. Paul, why you be comin’ to see me? I be jus’ fine.”“I missed you Miss Doris, I just had to come and see you.”“Dr. Paul, why you be comin’ to see me? I be jus’ fine.”She looks at me, and pinches her eyes narrow. Then, in a rare moment, perhaps a moment captured from her past, her words change.“Oh, Dr. Paul.”“Oh, Dr. Paul.”“Oh, Dr. Paul.”Then she sits silent, never speaking again.I gather a nursing aide and wheel her to her room. The room is barren. The closet contains two one‐piece dresses, the kind “old ladies wear” the nursing aide says, two pairs of shorts for the fever of summer heat, and Velcro‐laced shoes. The austerity of the room is humbling and frightening. I briefly examine her; she looks at me bewildered and leans away. I finish quickly, and the aide leaves. I sit silently beside her. This is what her life has become: stolen memories, and a room empty of her life. I want to cry; she has nothing and no one. There are no photos or mementos. Her siblings are all dead, and a 74‐year‐old daughter is a ward of the state because of schizophrenic disease. Her only son died in a “gun accident” several years ago.I pull a Bible from the beside drawer. Doris is, or was, a devout Southern Baptist and used to read the Bible daily and listen to the preachers on the left side of the AM radio dial, yet now the mention of the Scriptures or of God does little to engage her. I place the Bible on her lap and open it to Psalm 28—nothing. She just sits there. The synapses have been taken and, with them, most of the memories. The Scriptures are now gibberish, and God nothing more than a three‐letter word.She has become like a newborn—her memory scarce and her dependence great. She sits restrained in a chair by a belted waistband, in simple and easily changeable clothes, in a bulky diaper, with the television—an old‐age baby‐like “mobile,” if you will, that hangs high on the wall—blaring in the background. She is trapped in a body that is alive and aware, but with a mind that eludes her control.I hold Doris's hand. She is special to me, but to the world, there's nothing magical or exceptional or unique about her or her life. She is just one of the thousands of older adults relegated to the myopic periphery of societal concern, living their final days in a nursing home, hidden and forgotten.As I turn to leave, I gently touch her shoulder and say goodbye and think of how tragic and sad her life has become, stripped of who she was, what she was, and where she was, her life a buried postscript of discarded yesterdays. And for that, I am selfishly afraid.AcknowledgmentsConflict of Interest: None.Author Contributions: Paul Rousseau is the sole author.Sponsor's Role: None.
Journal of American Geriatrics Society – Wiley
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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