The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman - Part 4

The Terrible, Lonely Death of An Old, Old Woman – A Follow-up

category_bug_journal2.gif I intended to move on from Grandma Hazel today, but reading and re-reading your many thoughtful comments on the four parts of her story has led me back to her and I would like us, instead, to discuss a couple of items that come to mind from this and what we might learn.

First, however, one last mystery I omitted. The story was told in the family that my father's enlistment in the Army Air Corps for World War II was held up because he did not have a birth certificate. Further, it was said, records for the year of his birth, 1916, in Chicago, had been destroyed in a fire so Aunt Edith signed a statement that she had been present at his birth and the government then sent him off to war.

I have always thought this was an odd story. The great Chicago fire took place in 1871, long before my grandmother was born, let alone my father, and even if there had been a subsequent fire in a city building, it seemed strange to me that the records for just one year would be lost.

Curious when I recalled this story yesterday, I searched the web for Chicago birth records. At the services that offer public record searches, 1916 Cook County is available and according to one, there is a record of my father's name for that year. However, public records appear to not be so public. They don't come free on the web and I don't want to pay $30 or $40 dollars right now so until I do, whatever my dad's birth certificate might reveal remains a mystery.

Mysteries and secrets, secrets and lies. One of the biggest things I have learned from five years of blogging is that if I have experienced something, so have many other people, and some commenters on Hazel's story mentioned their own family secrets.

Sharing Our Stories
Unlike younger generations who now catalog the most intimate details of their lives nearly by the minute on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc., our generation grew up learning not to air our dirty laundry in public, which might account for some of the secrets in our families. But that dictum could benefit from an adjustment. As Ciaran noted in the comments:

“By sharing stories such as yours, you help others with similar pasts know that they are not alone.”

And Paula similarly:

“I know I'm not the only reader who feels slightly less alone today because of this story.”

Although I have not mentioned it in a long time, I am convinced that blogging is an almost perfect pastime for elders. It is solitary in the need to sit quietly as we think and write – never a bad thing to take time for a closer look.

It is also social in that blogging expands our circle of acquaintances and friends worldwide. It keeps our minds active and exercised and in telling our stories, it fulfills Carl Jung's admonition in his seven tasks of aging to review our lives as we approach the final chapters.

At a time in life when we no longer have the daily camaraderie of the workplace, may not drive any longer or, perhaps, are not as mobile generally as we once were, some smart people presented us with this marvelous, new way to be in touch just in time for us to benefit.

And as Ciaran and Paula realize, learning that others have lived through similar experiences and that we are not alone with our secrets and lies is a comfort. But unless we share these stories we don't know that, and the secrets and lies are perpetuated.

As I have done before, I urge you to write your stories on your blogs. If you don't have a blog, you are welcome to send them to me for The Elder Storytelling Place. Our stories are not always secrets, nor mysterious or dark. I had a great, good belly laugh last month when Cop Car commented on the post about leaking to say, “I am not dressed without a Maxipad.”

It had taken me months (I can be slow sometimes) of too much clothes changing to figure out that what I had once used for menstruation could now have another practical application. If we talked a little more about things we keep hidden, we would know a little more than we do.

Moving on...

Helping Elders in Trouble
Alexandra commented that “society really needs to rethink how it treats the elderly.” To the extent she may be suggesting a formal government program that would keep tabs in some manner on elders who live alone, that is more intrusive in terms of record keeping and social service visits than is either practical or, for me, welcome. I certainly don't want to answer to a government worker about my housekeeping.

We would all hope that adult children would keep watch, but families are often scattered over distances and children never have been a guarantee of care in our old age. Neighbors and neighborhoods are not the cohesive communities they were in my youth. Most of the houses on my block here in Portland, Maine, are rentals and in many cases, people move in and out before there's a chance to learn their names.

Networks of friends could help by checking on one another regularly with just a short phone call. These days, that probably should be extended to a daily email since many are more likely to keep in touch that way than by phone.

But for this to work on a wide-enough scale, I suspect there would need to be a sea change in cultural attitudes, which seems to have shrunk, about being our brothers' keeper and toward elders in general - which brings us back to Alexandra's original point and without a solution.

The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 1
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 2
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 3
The Terrible, Lonely Death of an Old, Old Woman – Part 4

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: There's Something About Tap Dancing


This has been a wonderful series, Ronni. Thank you for opening up so much for many of us to ponder.

I do think we need to quite consciously think about how we can, each of us, stay at least somewhat connected to some community structures as we age. This is a society where more and more of us will age in place away from/without built-in breakers of isolation: without children, other relatives, church communities, etc.

Quite simply, I begin to understand why at the end of her life my mother went on what I would have thought were excruciatingly boring bus trips to see gardens with a women's club. She didn't have to love the activities; she needed to see and be seen by people.

Will I have the guts and moxie to do that if I find myself alone?

As always Ronni, you bring up excellent points. As to blogging, I frankly don't know what I would do without this and other blogs, especially since I lost my job. This is MY community.

Though I have had a difficult time writing my blog at times, it is very therapeutic. I sometimes have trouble revealing my innermost thoughts on my blog but after your series on your aunt, I will rethink that.

There is a new trend now in Elder Community development, one with NO borders, no walls. For those who would not move into a "retirement community", the trend is a community with no walls. New, it means a group of services to those elders already living in an area to help them age successfully in the home they love. A former colleague of mine is actually working on one in the New England area.

Perhaps this will be the wave of the future: to help others without forcing them to give up their homes. I hope so.

I can't wait for your next story!!

When I moved to a new city more than 24 years ago, I got connected in various ways, among them signing up to be a "Friendly Visitor" in a program of the Jewish Family Services agency. A year of calling my neighbor every morning and our little chats bumped up the contact to phone calls daily and in-person visits weekly. Years after she died at age 93, I don't pass Mrs Levy's home or synagogue without remembering her and what she taught me. This is an easy win-win program, and I encourage readers to sign up with a local agency program. Or, create your own if you know someone(s) in need of such a daily phone call. This is an instance when asking "How are you?" means you really want to know.

A good job for seniors wanting part time work could be, calling a group of seniors, and/or visiting them, reading with or to them, taking a walk, etc. I know many volunteer for this kind of work, but it could be a good paying job in this economy.

Family secrets. Oh if we only knew the real deal about people who snubbed us at school, treated us like dirt. If we knew then what we know now. I remember my first day of school, wearing different clothes, and being shunned in the school yard- by snobs. People who thought they were better because they had a bigger house, expensive car. I just remembered a defining moment in my life and will send it on to you, Ronni.

I don't know a ready solution to elders (or really even younger people) who choose to cut themselves off from the world. As in the case of your grandmother, she had contact with others but kept them out of her home. The pop counselor on radio had an unhealthy mother/daughter relationship and for her own sanity had left it.

Sometimes family knows there is an oddity like the old woman I heard of when I was a child who had a houseful of magazines and newspapers stacked with paths through it. She liked it that way and nobody could force her to change it. Gray Gardens is about the same situation as your grandmother's and that did get changed by Jackie Kennedy having the money and clout to make it change. Their home had been declared unfit for human habitation).

The thing is, as you mentioned, we don't like the idea of government poking into our homes or lives. Any other snooping, by relatives or friends, can be stopped by a person who wants to avoid the scrutiny.

On the birth certificate, the Mormon Church has a free website if you haven't checked there yet which might give you some information about your father's birth. Also some of the genealogy sites allow a free two week trial. They have the info fairly easily accessible. One time I paid for a 3-month (not that cheap) membership and got a lot of information on my family, some of which I had had no idea about. Fires were a common reason at one time for disappearing documents, especially in the West, but maybe used a lot more than they happened when people preferred to keep something secret.

A wonderful series and a very helpful one, it seems. We all have secrets; my problem is that I think some of our family's "secrets" were told to me incorrectly, so I am loath to retell them. I know that my mom 'sugarcoated' some tales because she was embarrassed.

Thanks for this series, Ronni. I have been reading "on-the-fly" as I'm still working (read: trying to stay employed) and putting out economic fires, myself - but I just want to say that this series has been enlightening and an inspiration. I have some paperwork that I inherited after my mother's death that includes a letter from a mortician in New York complaining that my Grandmother did not send him enough money to compensate for all the detail work he did in sewing her brother's head back on after he was beheaded! WHAT!?!? I don't ever recall anyone even mentioning that my Grandmother HAD a brother, let alone one who lost his head in New York City! I'm inspired to 1) retire and 2) check out what the heck THAT was about after reading your series.

Reading your blog as well as the many comments help me in more ways than can be imagined, and I am extremely grateful. Because of my apparently out-dated computer, I have not been able to read the stories since mid-June. However, I return to work mid-August and will try to catch up there on my brand new work computer.
My husband continues to believe that what goes on in the family/ house, stays in the family/house. Of course, he also thinks our computer at home is just fine.

Because I live alone, have no family in Arizona, don't drive and have a distant relationship with my neighbors, I find your blog on this subject to be very important.

I think it is up to the elders to make contact with the outside world and not wait for someone to come to them. However, we know that there are some people who are so private they refuse to ask for help. That's when a caring friend should step in and contact them daily to make sure they are okay.

All elders living alone need at least one backup contact. I have two friends who would miss me without hearing from me on a daily basis. As luck would have it, they were both gone out of state for a long trips this past weekend and both arrive home today. I wonder what would have happened if I had needed help and no one knew because my daily contacts were gone.

My blog friends know that I have a panic alert button, but I discovered that it's range is limited. My mail box is about 100 ft. from my house and a few weeks ago I was turning my scooter around after getting my mail. The forward motion jammed and I shot over the curb at an angle and tipped over in the street. It was over 100 degrees that afternoon and the pavement was probably 115. I couldn't get up and thanked God for my panic button. To my dismay I discovered that the signal doesn't reach that far.

I must have a guardian angel because there was no one outside to see me, but a visiting woman drove by and stopped. She called 911 and those great firemen came and got me back upright. Other than a skinned elbow and some resulting swelling and aches I was fine. But I could have cooked like a fried egg if the woman hadn't picked that time to drive by.

My point is that all elders should have someone to make sure they are okay. If you are younger and know an elder who is alone please call them every morning.

Sometimes you are unable to protect yourself from all contingencies, but we certainly should see that all elders do not suffer the same fate as Grandma Hazel. Sometimes it's wise and caring to intrude into their lives and check on them often.

Ronni, This series inevitably takes me back to a tragic "terrible, lonely death" in my family and the issues of how we treat our our poor and our mentally ill. While casually researching the side of my family that I knew very little about, I discovered on the internet a distant cousin who had found records on a mutual ancestor, who had been unknown to us. Our ancestor had developed what was apparently acute mental illness in the context of her family members having suffered the awful effects of going South earlier to fight in the Civil War and family poverty. She was sent to the County Poor Farm and housed in the jail section, which was where they placed the mentally ill. On a very cold night, someone had placed her chair near a stove to help keep her warm. Her clothes caught fire, and she apparently didn't call out or struggle. Within days, she died from her burns. I have a copy of a family photo including her, showing her to be pretty but looking very depressed. She wasn't really very old, but I suppose a poor middle-aged woman then might have been considered old (in the sense of something to be discarded). My cousin and I, independently of each other, became health care professionals, in emergency room treatment and mental health. Maybe there was an unconscious reason for those career choices, rooted in our family history. Our ancestor's sad story, though, is only one among millions of others.

Hello Claire Jean,

Isn't it strange that in a discussion of people losing touch with others, you commented to Ronni and I read it.

I have been wondering where you were and hoping you were all right because you usually comment on the stories.

I am happy to know you are among the missing only because of computer problems. That's good!

Hope to see you soon at the Elder Story Telling Place.

Ronni I have -- I can't say really enjoyed this series, but it does make me think back to my younger days and the family secrets (that still must not be told) that all families have.

I promised my mother, not to research my family tree until both of them have passed on. I guess there are family secrets there I will discover when I have that opportunity. I am more curious than actually care about what the secrets will reveal.

Thank you for reminding us all to be observant and a bit more caring for those around us.


Thank you so much Nancy for taking the time to write me regarding my comment!

Claire Jean

I found your series interesting and of course, quite sad. It sounds as if Grandmother had dementia. If that be the case, I would not consider her isolation a conscious choice, but rather a result of the disease. I have learned so much about the disease by living with it through my husband. In retrospect, I believe he has suffered for longer than I initially believed.

As for the issue of how we treat our elderly....pretty scary. From what I have observed with my husband's family, the outlook is pretty glum. I know that there are close knit families that show great care and concern for their aging parents, but I must say that I have observed some reprehensible behavior directed to the parents that provided the silver platter to the offspring of my own generation. Just my two cents on the subject.

I have written a short post at my second blog with links to each of the posts in this marvelous series.

I guess Hazel's story really moved me, hence my earlier comment. I did not mean "formal government program." That sounds awful! More like what exists in Sweden, where each town has trained social workers who stop in to cook meals, etc. for the elderly, in their homes, when the need arises. Yes, we would need a "sea change in cultural attitudes" here in America. I decided to home care my elderly mother, as you know, and was horrified when my own daughters told me to "just put Grandma in a nursing home and get your life back." I do not regret my choice at all. I believe Vermont has a program that provides help to the elderly in their homes. Any Vermonters out there who could share some details?

As to family secrets, Sven, as a boy, noticed the gravestone of his grandmother's husband indicated he had died several years before Sven's mother had been born. Sven asked his mother how this could be. She started crying and requested that he never ask her again. So, he didn't. Turns out she was born out of wedlock, at the beginning of the century. The town folk knew who her father was, but no one talked about it and eventually the man moved away. One day an older relative told Sven the family name of his grandfather. Now, through the wonders of the Internet, I was able to find a photo of a potential new "cousin" for Sven and the family resemblance cannot be denied. I am working at getting these two men together. Sven still feels reluctant to divulge Anna's secret ...

One of the elements of health care reform is to provide more government funding for workers who provide the assistance necessary for elders to remain independent longer and living in their own home instead of a nursing home. This is the opposite of having government limit one's independence. Of course, a person could refuse the assistance, but few do. Visits by home health workers also reduce isolation, and those workers can bring in additional assistance or referrals when they observe an elder living in squalor or in need of medical care. It's a nice idea to rely on families and totally private groups like churches for assistance, but it doesn't happen consistently in our mobile society or even in our more stable society of the past, leaving many people suffering or prematurely admitted to nursing homes. It remains to be seen whether all the compromises on health care reform going on in Congress will preserve anything as sensible as expanded in-home care.

Thank you Ronni for this wonderful series that I now have found time to read. I got a chill reading it as a dear friend of mine is living like your grandmother, when things break she has to do without as no one could gain passage in her house. None of us are admitted. There are little pathways to everything and she doesn't use her cupboards because of mice. That was the last time I saw it which was 12 years ago in an emergency and it has worsened now. I keep thinking she'll wind up like your grandmother. She has no children and one sister who despairs of her.
I have had several interventions with her and she promises to get help but never does. Over the forty years I've known her I've cleaned her up several times but no more. It is just enabling, she immediately reverts.
Sorry for the long comment, but you had me in tears and I feel so helpless re my friend.

Family Secrets?
We all have a few - I stay away from my mother's side of the family - they are just too crazy, even for me. (Maybe if you'd had 17 brothers and sisters, you'd be a little crazy too)
Anyway, on the "straight" side, my dad's, there is one I just discovered recently through ""
While I was growing up, my dad never talked much about his family. He managed to avoid or evade questions about my grandfather and nobody ever talked about my paternal grandmother at all. In fact, I assumed that she had died at my dad's birth or maybe the influenza epidemic of 1918 when my dad was 12 years old. But grandma Lyda was living in Oklahoma in 1920 quite near the headquarters of the Cherokee nation. Grandma was at least part, if not pure Cherokee and when her family went west during the "Trail of Tears" when the Federal government rounded up most of the Native Americans, (including the Cherokee) and forced them to walk all the way to Oklahoma where they settled. Evidently grandma and grandpa split up sometime after my dad was born and she decided to go back to her own people.
My aunt never mentioned it but she lived with grandma in Oklahoma for a while before she went to nursing school.

I just finished reading this story and I'm glad I had all five parts together when I read it. It resonates with something very personal and quite similar (though entirely different) in my own experience.

My biological father died in late July and some of the secrets associated with mom's first marriage (and my birth) may have died with him. It's a story aching to be told, but the pattern of secrets and denial in my family is such that I don't know when I'll be able to write it.

Regardless, thank you for this compelling narrative, Ronni. It's a fascinating story extremely well told.

Here I am, dropping a comment in the mix more than a week after you closed the book on this story. I'm too late for the conversation, but I wanted to chime in with my compliments. Immediacy is a condition highly valued by the media, whether the medium is broadcast news or blog-time chatter. After we tell our stories they dissipate like smoke in the wind and there's often not much left a week later. But your story of Hazel has legs, I think. It certainly belongs in a "Best of Ronni" collection.

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