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My View: Family bonds solidify as a life ebbs away

By Christina McNeil

It was a typical phone call from my mother. We chatted about work, our pets, the wather. Then she started talking about her week and mentioned going to visit Nana at a nursing home. I stopped her.

“Wait, what?” I said. “Nana’s in a home now?”

My mother quickly explained that my aunt couldn’t care for her and, yes, she was in a home. She’d been there for a month.

I told her I wanted to go.

As we approached the door, Mom pointed out the cute Chihuahua ornament that resembled Nana’s last dog. Akia was the dog Nana adopted for me when I was living with her.

When I went to college, I couldn’t take Akia. Upon graduating, I didn’t have the heart to take Nana’s companion away.

As we enter, I hug Nana sitting in her recliner. I turn to my mom as we pass the little kitchenette set up in what actually looked like a bathroom with a fridge.

“Where’s the staff? What if someone gets hurt or sick?”

She looks down, sighing. “I know. I’ll tell your aunt about it.”

My aunt is my nana’s health care proxy.

My mind wanders. I remember my aunt’s words: “Someday she won’t even know who you are.”

I want to cry, but choke tears down as I watch Nana.

Mom chatters on. She starts a puzzle. Keeping busy helps her not fall apart, like those puzzle pieces.

“Alzheimer’s,” she’d told me earlier. “Memory loss. But she’s still Nana.”

Two months later, we’re struck in the face with worse news.

My mom was hesitant on the phone. Wanted my siblings there.

“I kinda think … well it might be better if … I told you all at once.” She stumbled. “I guess … ” Heavy sigh.

“Mom! Just tell me. I’m sick of family secrets already!”

My mom sighed again. “OK. Well, Nana went for testing … she has … well, this open wound … on her … and they found out it’s cancer.”

It was stage 4. She had less than six months to live.

As I let this sink in, I thought of Nana sitting in her sterile room alone. She must be terrified. Nothing worse than being alone and terrified.

Christina McNeil

Over the following months, my family visited more frequently. When I looked at her, she never looked sick; that’s how we deceive ourselves. Some things can’t be seen.

It made me think about the other residents, the ones alone in their rooms, doors open, clearly not trying to hide, perhaps welcoming one warm heart to keep them company.

Nursing homes and senior citizen homes can be lonely places at the end of one’s life. People become isolated, depressed, feel a deeper need for connection. It’s a vital time for them as they reflect on their lives and what lies ahead. We need to be there, even if all we do is listen, watch TV, do puzzles.

After several visits, I started looking into and applying for jobs and volunteer opportunities in the field. We can give what we can, while we can. Even if we can’t save them, we can be someone who listens, hears their story as they end their journey here, so their memories live on.

Christina McNeil, of Cheektowaga, is sharing her grandmother's end-of-life journey.


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