Wednesday, December 07, 2005

waiting and being waited for

Just south of Ottawa's trendy Glebe area is a tower of rooms where seniors with physical and mental disabilities spend their days waiting. They wait for their meals - which are always late and usually unappetizing. They wait for their pills, for coffee hour, for bingo on Saturdays... Many of them are just waiting to die.

I have seen indignity personified in an elderly woman sitting on the toilet, her back curved forward, her feet suspended a few inches from the ground, her pants and underwear bunched at her ankles. Sometimes she will be like this for half an hour, waiting for someone to come and help her get down. Waiting in helpless pain.

"Why doesn't God just let me die?" she has asked me the last two times I have visited her. "This isn't living."

She is 91-years old and was diagnosed with Parkinson's ten years ago. Some days she can stand on her own, other days she cannot keep her eyes open or speak on the telephone. She is at the mercy of nurses in an under-funded, under-staffed care centre. "I feel neglected," she has said numerous times. She tells me her frustrations with the poor care, the poor food that does little to tempt a stomach nauseated by medication. I find myself always at a loss for words. "That must be frustrating," I say.

"It is," she replies softly. Sometimes she is so frustrated she breaks down in tears.

One day when I came by, two other women from her floor were visiting with her in her room. I thought this was nice and told her so. Apparently they were talking about how they all just wished they could die.

It's hard to know what to say when she tells me she doesn't want to keep living. Death is too prevalent lately. I tell her that I enjoy her company, that she is like family to me. But I know that does not change her situation. I would not want to live as she lives. No one should have to live like this.

Often I feel helpless when I am with her. Helpless in the face of her pain, her despair. I know that being there I offer some comfort, but some days it feels like I am watering the desert with a bucket. I leave sometimes wanting to rant about under-funded public care and the indifference of our society that abandons its elderly to such towers of neglect. And yet visiting her has also brought me some subtle joys.

There have been many times in the last few years when I had few people around who cared about me. Loneliness is a dark emotion. But I always knew that there was a woman in the Glebe who would be watching the clock on Sundays, waiting for me to come. Every time I visit her I feel appreciated. Every time I see her she thanks me for coming. Every time I enter her room she smiles.

It's both a responsibility and a humbling pleasure to be waited for.

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