On death and dying at home

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By Pat Webdale

Pat Webdale

On display at the Dutton House in the Shelburne Museum in Vermont is a wooden cradle several feet long. A thin blanket covers the bottom.

The cradle that sits in front of the fireplace was used to keep elderly persons who were close to their demise warm and comfortable near their family. It was once a common practice when most ill and elderly persons died at home.

It also reminds me of my own grandmother.

Several people died in my grandmother’s home. I witnessed my Grandma Gert as the caretaker of her mother, my great-grandmother. I remember watching my grandma and her daughter, Aunt Helen, helping the older woman to the bathroom. There were no bedside commodes delivered by hospice yet. Each woman held great-grandmother under one arm. She was 87 years old. We would give her sips of water and hugs and fix her pillows. She died peacefully at her daughter’s home.

Grandpa Mike was the next recipient of Gert’s loving care. My dad would come over to help him walk around the living room to keep his skin free from irritation. I was present in the house when Grandpa died. Grandma herself was not so fortunate as to die in her home. After breaking two bones and becoming incapacitated, she died in a nursing home. I did get to visit my maternal and paternal grandmothers in their respective nursing homes.

Thirty years later, my mother-in-law, suffering from terminal cancer at age 72, was able to stay in her own home until the end of her life. She had the companionship of her sister until a week before she died, when she went to a hospice house for respite. One night I had the privilege to stay overnight and care for her in her hospice room. When the next day dawned, it was Mother’s Day. All of the family gathered for a party in the common room. We gave her gifts and enjoyed dinner. Mom died two days later.

A decade later, my father, 85, needed acute care. The family gathered to talk about putting him in a nursing home. We decided to first have a visit with a hospice volunteer. I sat in the living room with my dad and wished out loud that he would die peaceably, and not languish for many days. At that very moment he took a last breath. He was able to pass away with his oldest daughter, me, close to him.

My own mom always said she did not want to go into a nursing home. It is amazing that she was able to fulfill this wish. She lived on her own for 11 years after my father died. Her home was a few doors away from my sister, who was mom’s baby. Susan took extraordinary care of our mom. She drove her to the senior center and took her to the library and grocery shopping. I am sure this TLC is why mom lived so long. At the age of 91, my mother suffered a heart attack and we did call 911. She went into a hospital and put up with various tests and X-rays. I stayed overnight with her for the duration of the stay. The staff told us that she was not going to rally and recover, as pneumonia had set in. An ambulance returned her to her beloved home. Again we called on hospice. She left the easy chair she was sitting in and went to bed, her mind made up. Her four children were with her almost constantly. A few grandkids came to visit; one was a nurse who took her final vitals. I was the kid who gave her the morphine. My sister is the one who heard her last breath as I slept in another room.

I think about that cradle once in a while. Maybe when my time comes, I can prevail on my son-in-law to build one for me. I will snuggle in with my Pottery Barn faux fur blanket. Maybe I can still ask for a glass of Cabernet. That would be nice.

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