Successful Aging
Trying to Make a Respite From and For Myself

A TGB READER STORY: How Can I Help You?

By Ellen Rand

(Note: names have been changed to protect their privacy)

The afternoon that I went for a walk with Linda for the first time was one of the moments I’ve been proudest of as a hospice volunteer, odd though that may seem.

I’d first met Linda a few months prior to that, when the late fall and winter light made her and her husband Joseph’s small and cluttered apartment dark in the early afternoons.

I was there mainly to visit Joseph who was immobile and unspeaking in his hospital bed in the living room following a devastating stroke.

In theory, a volunteer’s role is to keep ill people company and give their caregivers a break. But I’ve found that caregivers often opt to stay home with their loved ones instead. Why? It may be a fear that something awful will happen in their absence, worry that only they know how to best care for their loved one, or a simple desire to have company themselves once a week for a couple of hours.

Whatever the reason, this was the case with Linda too and over several months, I came to understand the fierceness of this diminutive woman’s devotion to her husband.

She made sure that he was always clean, that he was turned often enough to avoid bed sores, that he would eat his favorite foods that she’d cooked and blended so she could feed him one spoonful at a time, however long it took.

At night, she slept, fitfully, in a reclining chair next to his hospital bed.

The standing cliché about volunteering is that the volunteer gets more out of it than the people he or she helps. That’s certainly been true for me. Over a period of months I learned about how limitless love and devotion could be.

It wasn’t just Linda. Their grown children visited regularly, too, always talking with Joseph, being affectionate with him, including him in their conversations.

I wondered how much Joseph understood about what was going on as he lay, locked in his own body without being able to move or speak. I wondered about the strength of the human spirit, about the bonds that connect us to one another. I wondered about how limited we may be in thinking about what it means to be human, or about what constitutes a life worth living.

What seemed clear to me was that Joseph, despite his illness and innumerable, dire complications, was still very much with his family and continued to live, likely thanks to all of Linda’s and their children’s love and care.

But caregiving takes its toll and Linda was exhausted. So when I visited, I would try to persuade her to go out for a while, but she preferred to stay in, and we would talk over tea and the treats she would urge me to indulge in. That was how I got to know the happier contours of their lives, before illness struck.

Then one glorious spring day, it happened. “Let’s go out for a walk,” I said to Linda and she finally said yes. She disappeared into the bathroom for a while and when she came out, she had put makeup on, changed her clothes and fixed her hair.

We linked arms, the way I’d done with my mother when she’d been ill, and we walked slowly around her neighborhood. Maybe a couple of blocks at first, but that increased gradually as we walked several more times that spring and early summer, until Joseph died.

I like to think that offering my friendship and a little respite helped her to continue bearing her burden. I still speak with Linda from time to time. She has said that she still feels lost, which breaks my heart.

She asks me about my family and we say “I love you” at the end of our conversations. I don’t know if she goes out for walks anymore. I hope so.

* * *

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Reader's stories are welcome. If you have not published here or not recently, please read submission instructions. Only one story per email.]

Comments

I am retiring from my teaching job in May and am considering filling my time with volunteer work. This was very inspirational. Thanks for sharing.

A beautiful story and relationship. Likely the caregiving wife may find some fulfillment becoming a volunteer herself. I've seen that happen several times.

Little things mean a lot. As hubby and I walked into our swim sessions at the Courage Pool, I often saw a woman helping her wheelchair bound husband into their car after a rehab session for him. Yesterday they were traversing the lobby as we came in. I leaned over to her and whispered, "You are a saint!" And she smiled, perhaps a bit wanly and said, "Thanks. I needed that." So many caregivers going above and beyond....

Ellen Rand, you are a wonderful writer! I admire your talent, and hope you post more! How I wish I could do as well...

Wow! Lovely story Ellen!

Your story touched my heart. Thank you.

This really was a kind & wonderful read, thanks Ellen. I couldn't help but be reminded of my own mom (also named Linda) who took care of my dad in his final 2 years. After he died, she was depressed, confused, angry with him. It took around a year, but she really seemed to blossom. She signed up for a bookkeeping course at the local college, joined a gardening club, volunteered at a daycare center... I hope your friend Linda blossoms too.

First, thank you Ronni for accepting this piece. And thank you to Margo, Janet, Jean and Doug for your lovely comments. For a writer to know that you have really touched others is a great gift. And, as Ruth Gordon, then 72 and accepting an Oscar for her performance in "Rosemary's Baby," said: "I can't tell you how encouraging a thing like this is."

Volunteers who have compassion and empathy for those assigned to them are a rare breed. You Ellen, are one of those. Caregiving is arduous, exhausting, debilitating, and loving. You get that. Linda was a lucky lady. Please continue volunteering.

You did a fine job with your care and attention to the patient, and you were a fine friend to his wife. I hope you can continue to work and be a friend for many more years. The world needs people like you.

What a lovely poignant story, Ellen! And beautifully told. You have a wonderful way with words and your generous spirit shines through. I know Linda is being honest when she says "I love you." Of course she does!

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