A nursing home was out of the question for the family of Mother Hilda when she became houseridden from rheumatoid arthritis 15 years ago when 70 years old. It was out of the question four years ago when she became partially bedridden. And, it also was out of the question when 1 1/2 years ago she became totally bedridden, wracked with pain.
The family of Mother Hilda was large–eight children and 13 grandchildren. They could have afforded a nursing home, but instead they chose love and personal care. The choice was not simply a matter of old-fashioned filial piety; they simply wanted her at home to enjoy the observations of her alert mind and the deep affection and respect they all had for one another.
So the dining room next to the kitchen in the eight-room family home was reconverted into her bedroom. It became a center of family operations. Mother Hilda still was very much the head of the family. Her wisdom, memory and tact were tapped daily. The grandchildren would come to her with their teenage problems. She gave them history and a frame of reference as well as a sympathetic ear. At times, she chided them or joked with them.
Two of the grandchildren were fine singers. They would come to grandmother and sing for her. She especially liked Ave Maria and she tolerated the contemporary popular songs. They called her their best friend.
It took planning and effort to keep Mother Hilda at home. The children had their own families in Rochester, N.Y., where she lived. One daughter and one son still lived at home. Everyday they would bathe her and change her bed. The daughter who worked nearby would come home at noon and fix lunch and call her every hour from work. The son, who is self-employed, would come home at 4 p.m. to relieve another daughter who was there in the afternoon. A practical nurse spent the morning hours during weekdays.
Mother Hilda, a widow, would observe occasionally that she was a burden on her children and their spouses. They would answer that she was a joy. She held the family together, gave them a sense of continuity and always had a thoughtful gift or advice at the appropriate times to members of her extended family.
“I cared for her because I loved her,” said her daughter, Lily, when Mother Hilda quietly passed away at the age of 85 a few days ago.
On Mother’s Day she had told the family that this would be the last such day for her. They feel an emptiness now without her. There will be no more Christmas gatherings around her bed where the gifts were exchanged, no more impromptu concerts, no more of her urging her children to get on with planting the spring garden.
But there remains something which is not perishable–a cooperative family respect that recognized an obligation and a pleasurable way of life as being one and the same.
Surely there is something here that touches on the essence of happiness. The family of Mother Hilda chose that way of living.
Other families would think the sacrifice to their preferred lifestyle too great. The nation’s nursing homes are full of elderly people who could still live at home but instead are completing their lives in places that too often are lonely, uncaring, hazardous and exploitive.
The warehousing of older Americans in this manner is a booming industry, fueled by over $4 billion in government subsidies. Corporations running vast nursing home chains announce in the Wall Street Journal the capital they are raising and the shares they are floating in the stock market. The nation’s gross national product (GNP) increases.
But the cost in rupturing the links between three generations and the cost of shelving human beings who have much to offer to relatives, friends and neighbors are destroying an important value in our society–indeed a fabric of our society–that the GNP cannot measure.
These also are costs which dehumanize people, who relegate their parents to this last segregation inside nursing homes.
There are older people, of course, without children to care for them. A humane society does need to provide help or homes in such instances. However, nothing can really replace the family.
When Mother Hilda spent her last few days in a coma, she managed to open her eyes a few times. That was enough for her granddaughter, who, thinking that possibly she could hear but not respond, would sing song after familiar song in her grandmother’s hospital room.