A life well lived


They brought her in on that Christmas eve, a tiny frail woman, her skimpy grey hair all askew, and those bright dark eyes looking round her. The Church workers said she had suddenly stopped coming to the church, so they went round to the address they had for her.

No power, no warmth and the only food was some tea and a few cans of fruit. She was huddled in her bed, and they weren’t sure if she had senile dementia of if she was just crazed with cold and hunger.

The government haven’t made it easy for the elderly, and so we pick up more and more of these cases. Too frail to live alone, but no-where other than the charity home for them to go. They brought a small suitcase with her, clothes, 3 photographs, a brush and comb, and her papers in a briefcase.

As I had no one else free to do so I started the online search using the name on the papers. But as I worked through the information in the government records I was amazed to realise she was 96, and had apparently until been living alone.

The staff had settled everyone by 10.45 and I could hear them in the kitchen, settling in for a cuppa and a chat before going to bed or their ‘awake’ posts.  Mr Bronson brought me some tea and a ginger biscuit; he had been the one who carried the newcomer to her room from the car.

He sat down, looking worriedly at me. He was a nurse who specialised in the care of the elderly, and did hospice duties as well. We have a hospice wing. He said “You know she must have been in such pain, but she never complained”. When I didn’t respond, he said “she is skin and bones, every touch must be agony.”  “If she survives to year end we can start to fatten her up, give her some time to make her peace.”

I sent off the various notifications to social services to clear out her flat, move her pension to our care, and to let them know she could probably do with someone to trace relatives.

In January I was surprised to discover how big her pension was, a military one. So why had she been starved?

Over the weeks, she responded well to efforts to get her to eat. The doctor pronounced her “starved but otherwise remarkably well’. By the end of January she was sitting up in her bed, looking around for people to talk to, eating well and demanding tea several times a day.

With the spring she was up and about, walking around the garden paths, chatting to the two grounds men, and apparently giving them advice. Once cleaned we realised her clothes were all of good quality, and despite our deducting her board and lodgings and the doctor’s visit, we had a sum of money in her ‘account’.

One morning, I asked her to come and chat to me. She came to my office, bringing a small posy of spring flowers that exactly fitted the little vase on my bookcase. Our chat revealed quite a lot. A bank account that had some money, an investment portfolio that I offered to have evaluated.

Within a few weeks I realised she was actually rather well off. I could not justify keeping her with us when others may need the charity even more. I asked her in to my office for a cup of tea with me. I began to broach the subject. She looked at me quite shocked. “Please don’t ask me to leave; I still have work to do here.” She said quietly.

That shook me, here was a woman in her 90’s speaking of work. To cover my feelings, I poured us the tea and took my cup for a sip. She said quietly “I need to go into town, there are several here in need of some clothes, One needs her glasses fixed properly, and several need something to protect their skin from the cold. Two have mentioned books they would love to read again, and they are not in the library here.”

She became our unofficial ‘social worker’ using the computer to trace benefits, relations, friends for various residents.  Surprise presents of most needed or wanted items I could only trace to her weekly trip to ‘town’.  Everyone knew her, and she knew every name, staff and residents. She attended every funeral, as well as taking something to each birthday celebration.  She was a busy woman, never with time to waste, but always willing to chat with someone in need of a companion.

Over the next few years, she and I became close. I learned a little about her role in freeing France during WWII. Amazing the spirit and ability she had shown. Her life working for the Intelligence Services while raising her children. Those children now dead and gone, the grand children and great-grandchildren visited her every month. The time together seemed happy, she always came home smiling.

The other side only came out later. Her work in various organisations for promoting education for women, freeing people from unfair imprisonment, political support for those fighting tyrants.  She hinted at some ‘behind the scenes’ work in the fall of communist regimes, I wasn’t surprised.

Now she told me her world had shrunk, to our home, and the family of staff and residents, making do with government grants. Our special meals for birthdays and holidays were always supplied by special ingredients from the local grocer, delivered with an ‘Already paid’ slip.

Her example changed the behaviour of some, no more complaining about the unfairness of life, but turning to help each other. Our garden and veggie garden flourished as residents started to take an interest. The delivery of wood and bricks that allowed the creation of raised vegetable beds suddenly meant that the elderly could help with weeding and planting, harvesting for the kitchen. Then the greenhouse, again helping us to be more independent.

A few days before her 100th birthday she brought me a book. The inscription inside read

“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.” – Nelson Mandela during an interview in 1994

She was very proud of her greetings card from the queen on her 100th birthday. A few months later when she did not come down for breakfast, I went to her room, dreading what I may find. She was laid out on her bed, looking peaceful and asleep.

Her funeral was well attended, people from town as well as the home. Her grandchildren and their children. The pastor spoke of her as of a friend, he said “Hers was a life well lived, we could all aspire to go with such a life behind us.”

Two days later a lawyer contacted me. The home had a substantial bequest from her, to be spent on looking after the residents as well as the staff.

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