My mother-in-law’s month-long spiral down for her exit from life on earth was as graceful as her entire 92 years. But, as it turns out, it was also spectacularly well-timed.
When Norinne Bohren Collea died Feb. 24, less than a month ago, she experienced days of constant visitors to hold her hand, beloved relatives to play piano, string bass and to sing with her in a beautiful flood of contact that must have felt warm and blissful to everyone involved. I’m convinced that those last contacts were likely even more necessary to her visitors; tying up a lifetime of joyful contact for the ones who wanted to say goodbye.
The lucky people who can spend a few minutes with someone close to death come away with a lifetime memory. As Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) says in the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” after he whispers in the ear of a dying man, “I asked him to pray for me,” pointing out that someone suffering that much must be very close to God.
And now one of the cruel results of trying to slow the spread of coronavirus is the need to limit or ban visitors from assisted living homes and skilled nursing facilities. What a loss for the living and the dying. And something to value even more when things return more closely to normal.
But creative solutions are creeping up to this new kind of isolation. The extreme would be simply kidnapping the elder from the institution, as happened in a wonderful New York Times article by Dan Barry about his father-in-law, “92 Years Old, Scared and Pleading to Come Home.” This patient had recently landed in a rehab facility with a broken hip, but otherwise lived at home with help. When suddenly he could have no visitors to enjoy his big, colorful, warm family, he was at sea. His family set up all the systems at home, hired an ambulance and brought him back. He said it was the second happiest day of his life.
Less drastic solutions can help, too. In Casper, some in long-term care facilities can now see and talk to their families through FaceTime or other platforms. From my own experience, this kind of seeing and talking across miles is more real than you might think. Since I am regularly treated to phone camera tours of my granddaughter’s art room 2,000 miles away and the sports posters on my grandson’s walls, I know the power of virtual connection.
Some homebound patients are even getting a bit more connection than before now that everyone is trying to be creative about reaching out, says inveterate optimist Susan Burk of Central Wyoming Hospice & Transitions. There may be more screening needed at the Casper facility right now, but relatives are stepping up their imaginations in ways to connect.
You may have seen cell phone videos of Italian opera stars serenading their neighbors from windows while on lockdown. A friend of mine described singing under the window of a grandpa confined to his assisted living. Just thinking about ways to connect will make more of them happen, one small sprout of green in the new world of social isolation.
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