When my grandmother-in-law became dependent on oxygen, we all had to cave in to common sense and agree that perhaps a care facility was the best option. At 97, although she was still remarkably sprightly of mind and body, the consensus was that it was also probably a good idea that she no longer drove to the supermarket in her zippy little red Datsun.
It is tough to make life-changing decisions for another person and it was not without angst. But, after a two-week whirlwind of family discussions and deliberations, we were greeting Edie’s smiling face as she emerged from the ambulance transport to the Bellarine Peninsula, from her home of more than five decades in riverside South Australia.
The idea of living in an institution of any kind is daunting. Regimented timetables, structured social opportunities and hospital-style food menus don’t hold great appeal.
Then there are stories such as the recent news report about an aged care facility resident being told by a staff member, “I can do anything to you that I like.” I would venture to say that would scare the colostomy bag off the best of us. Whether we are man, woman, child, animal or insect.
But Grandma faced her fate with the same stoic determination that she lived her life.
The aged care facility staff turned out to be wonderfully accommodating and the setting sublime. The room was small, but so was Grandma, and she was an unflappable, easygoing soul. Easygoing until it came to someone controlling her smoking habit.
At 97, the emphysema had progressed to the point she needed oxygen periodically. Clearly, smoking in her room was never going to be an option but she had access to an outdoor area where we installed a bird feeder, comfy chair and a stash of the word puzzle books she loved. By choice, Edie would stay out there all day.
But she needed a lighter to spark up her regular darts and the staff had deemed it appropriate that the lighter be left with the nurse on duty, rather than in Edie’s care. Just in case she lit a durry in her room and blew the facility into the clouds.
Everyone thought that was probably a bit silly, but that was the rule. Personally, I found it more than silly, I found it disrespectful and completely unreasonable.
As a former smoker, it was clear to me that no one appreciated the distress caused by being forced to wait, sometimes several hours, for a cigarette.
For me, it was poignant that the wishes of the oldest, most vulnerable and wisest person in our midst were being ignored. Instead, Edie was subjected to the patronizing, parental ‘tut tut’ attitude often taken by those without a dependency.
Control of the lighter was a critical symbol of her loss of power and independence.
OK, smoking is not an ideal choice and I suspect most smokers will agree. But, at 97, there is a strong chance that the government, medical authorities and society in general either suggested it, promoted it, or overtly encouraged her in that choice. I once interviewed a 99-year-old about his experience in the First World War and, between coughs, he told me that cigarettes were a staple of the army ration packs.
Rather than argue blithely for Grandma’s addiction, we decided to find out the crux of the issue and look for a solution.
The problem for the facility was having the lighter in the same vicinity as the oxygen. But when Edie was well enough to be outside, she did not have her oxygen with her.
So the lighter could remain outside? Yes, but she must not be able to bring it inside.
We found a lighter case with a keyring, bought a metre of chain and attached the lighter in the case to the chain. We then asked if we could fix this to the post outside, near Grandma’s chair, so she could light up at leisure without risking the entire building and its residents.
“That would be absolutely fine,” said the stunningly sensible head of the facility.
What a great outcome! Respect all round, the risk suitably managed and everyone happy.
It was simple in the end but there was a lot of effort to make sure a basic right was allowed to be enjoyed. Is this the same for everyone as they get older or do we accept that our increasing vulnerability means sacrificing certain rights?
As a society, have we forgotten how to look after our elders effectively? We are so busy being busy, I’m not sure we even know what our responsibilities are, or should be.
Looking after the older people in our community is a sign of a mature society. Let’s make sure we are as grown up as we should be.