Facing the Special Care Unit

By Janet Wight

We all knew this might be our last visit with my husband’s Aunt Hazel.

We had discussed this possibility repeatedly. Hazel (not her real name) is in her late 80s and recently developed some type of cognitive dysfunction, possibly due to the aftereffects of back-to-back surgeries within the past year.

The last time we saw Hazel was on Thanksgiving Day 2019. We visited her in the hospital, and she seemed to be OK. She wrote us a detailed letter in December describing her rehabilitation.

But when we spoke with Hazel on the telephone a few months ago we knew her mental state had changed. Later, we learned that she had been moved to the Special Care Unit in her senior community.

We set out for northern Wisconsin on a Saturday in late September. As we drove north, we admired the spectacular hues of the fall foliage, signifying the end of the growing season. I was contemplating the last few years of Aunt Hazel’s life, now in its final season, and how the best laid plans can disintegrate.

With fewer children and smaller extended families than in previous generations, it is not uncommon these days to be left with a meager (or non-­existent) support system in old age. This is a challenge that many of us will face, yet it often remains unspoken.

For nearly three decades my husband and I have been visiting his aunt and uncle once or twice a year, and our daughters have accompanied us on many of these outings. Since Aunt Hazel and her husband lived on the way to Duluth it was easy for us to stop by, and we did so many times.

Even if we were not headed to Duluth, we would sometimes make the four-hour, round-trip drive as a day trip, sampling Aunt Hazel’s wonderful cooking and homemade baked goods upon arrival. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them and their way of life over the years. Geographically, they were our closest family members.

But everything is different now.

When we arrived at Aunt Hazel’s senior community, I briefly stepped inside the compact Special Care Unit to announce our arrival. In this small town there is no need to lock the doors or block access to the rest of the building, even though some of the residents have dementia. It would be simple enough to locate someone who had wandered away. I found a staff member and asked for Aunt Hazel to be brought outside.

We had spoken with Hazel just four hours earlier.

But we were not sure if she remembered the conversation.

What was obvious, however, is that she was surprised and thrilled to see us. We had arranged four chairs on the small patio so that Aunt Hazel could join the circle in her wheelchair.

Hazel could no longer fully comprehend our attempts at conversation, and it was hard for her to form the words that she wanted to say. She clearly knew the people in the old photos that we showed her on a large iPad, including herself as a girl along with her brothers and parents. She was delighted to have this connection to her family and to see familiar faces. Her face lit up with each new image. And she loved being pushed in her wheelchair as we walked around the perimeter of her building several times. She savored the fall colors and relished the change in scenery. But no, she didn’t seem to understand exactly who we were and didn’t remember our names.

Most of us expect that a spouse or child, or a close friend or family member, will be there for us in our time of need. And Aunt Hazel was certainly devoted to her husband during his many months of living with Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, she still has dear friends including one who continues to visit her, and prior to being moved to the Special Care Unit she knew many people in her assisted living wing. Many of these residents had been former neighbors or acquaintances from the 50 years she has lived in the area.

Aunt Hazel’s children and grandchildren are not able to help out for various reasons, which is such a common occurrence in today’s society. These include geographic barriers, emotional distance and—saddest of all—estrangement.

We have discussed these issues with Hazel over the past few years along with our ideas and suggestions. We had even offered to help clean out her apartment after she passes away so she wouldn’t have to worry about what would happen. At this point she is no longer able to talk in depth about these individual family members, or even to express her most basic wants and needs. We already knew that she has been mostly alone for the past several years.

I wanted to visit Aunt Hazel because I realized how much she would enjoy seeing us, but that wasn’t the only reason. She has been my friend for nearly 30 years, and it was important to me to see her and talk with her again, especially if it turns out to be our last visit.

Despite the multiple phone calls and awkward difficulty in communicating, it was totally worth the effort. Aunt Hazel has been an important part of my life for a long time, and I wanted to make sure she knew that.

Janet Wight is a resident of Como Park where she lives with her husband and daughters

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