A Visit To The End of Life

Inside a nursing home, a funeral parlor and the vast expanse of memory, Ben Oliver sees harbingers of the future and ghosts of the past.

February 18, 2004|By Story by Ellen Gamerman

"Help me ... help me ... please help me ... oh God, help me ... "

The stranger bends over her knees and wails in her wheelchair as Ben and Florence Oliver walk down the nursing home hallway. Today, at the happily named Brooke Grove Retirement Village, the Olivers are visiting one of the scary floors, an area sealed by locked elevators so that residents with serious dementia cannot escape.

Ben keeps Florence moving, eager to clear this corridor as he helps steady his wife. A toilet flushes and a door swings open. A sign reads, "Today is WEDNESDAY. The season is SUMMER. The weather is HOT. The next holiday is THE FOURTH OF JULY."

The Olivers reach Charlotte Kleinbecker's door.

Inside, a shrunken woman lies under a blanket, a pink gown covering her body, her bones sunk so far into the bed it's hard to see where the mattress starts and she stops. Charlotte once lived two floors down from the Olivers at Leisure World. But as the neighbor became overwhelmed by confusion, Florence gained power of attorney over her affairs. The two were never that close - Florence just realized Charlotte had no one else, so she stepped in.

Now, nearly a decade after the neighbor's dementia surfaced, Florence sits at her bedside.

"Charlotte?"

The 96-year-old patient lies still.

In recent years, Ben has taken over the business of Charlotte's care from his wife, who is herself increasingly ravaged by Alzheimer's disease. He cannot fathom taking his Florence out of their Silver Spring senior-citizens community and putting her in a place like this. In fact, he has constructed their life to avoid precisely this.

Charlotte is quiet, but a few feet away, her roommate babbles from her bed.

"I-bee, I-bee, I-bee," the roommate says, her voice as raw as a throatful of glass.

Startled, Florence turns toward the sound.

"I-bee, I-bee, I-bee," the roommate rasps, her thin white ponytail askew.

Florence stares, asks her husband if this woman is a man, then stares some more. It's as if the part of Florence that is still lucid is reeling from what she sees and hears and understands: that this is a visit to the end of life. Florence looks from the roommate to Ben to the door. Every part of her seems to be saying, Get me out of here.

Both Charlotte and her roommate lie under yellowing pictures from their youth, reminders of who they once were. Ben and Florence have pictures like this, too - Ben is fond of poring over them, glimpsing the Florence of his past, seeing the woman who could glide at a ballroom dance as easily as she could hurl a softball fast and on target.

Charlotte suddenly rouses herself. In one sharp motion, she turns to Florence.

"How you feel?"

"I don't feel too good," Florence tells her.

"How you feel?"

"I feel good," Florence says, equally convinced.

Nothing in this room computes.

"I-bee, I-bee, I-bee," the roommate says.

Florence tries to hoist herself up.

"Where are you going?" Ben asks his wife.

"I'm leaving."

It used to be Florence who stayed, back when no one else would. Charlotte was already in her 80s and sliding deeper into dementia, her apartment filled with a bizarre assortment of magazines, her unpaid bills stacked high, her phone service cut off. Florence saw this widowed German immigrant with no children, sick and alone, and thought, there but for the grace of God goes anyone. She wrote the relatives in Germany, begging them to step in or lose Charlotte's care to a faceless bureaucracy.

"If you choose not to do this, then the County Government will do it for you and you may not like the results," she warned in that letter. But Florence couldn't make good on the threat, and soon she was the one taking her neighbor to the doctor, monitoring her bank account and finally putting her in a nursing home.

"I-bee, I-bee, I-bee," the roommate growls.

Florence is rising again, turning toward the exit, looking between the roommates, looking for the door.

Ben still hasn't found a caregiver for his wife. He said he'd deal with the idea after the family's Caribbean cruise. But it has been weeks now, and, still, nothing. He confesses that the more he thinks about it, the less he believes it's necessary. He has been caring for Florence for three years now, since he first noticed her disease, and he found he can do all the work a nurse would without upsetting his wife, without inviting a stranger into their midst.

The Oliver children push Ben hard to hire an aide, but he resists.

He thinks of his son and daughter as spectators, in a way - very close to the situation, but not living with it as he is, 24 hours a day. He doesn't mind them second-guessing him, offering advice - he knows it's out of concern - but he wants them to remember the final decision still belongs to him. And for now, Ben has ruled, he can handle everything just fine on his own.

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