Friends with the Elderly:

Saying Goodbye to Bertha

by Robin Bonner

As you may recall from the Winter 2010 issue, Bertha and I began our friendship a couple of years ago at a holiday sing-a-long that my daughter and I organized at a local seniors’ residence. Bertha sat alone, right there in front, looking perky in her jauntily tied red scarf. We asked her if she’d like some cookies, which were located on a nearby buffet table and hard to reach for someone with a walker. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had learned that Bertha didn’t hear very well, liked to read books, and would celebrate her 88th birthday the following month. I asked for her phone number, promised to call, and agreed to take her to church with me sometime soon (for she was a member of my parish).

During our first and later conversations, I realized that Bertha didn’t get out much. So, I focused on taking her to lunch, just to give her a change of scenery. (And she really seemed to enjoy food, especially dessert!) I could fit this into my normal work day—if she remembered I was coming. There were a few times that I would call while on my way over, and a flustered Bertha would cry, “Oh, my! Is that today?” As that happened more and more often, I learned to call about an hour in advance, so her home health-care aide could make sure she was up and dressed. (Bertha told me at one point that she usually slept late in the morning, and I realized that she was probably sleeping away while her aide was doing her laundry and cleaning up her apartment!)

I’m no gerontologist. My own grandparents died fairly young (60s and 70s), my parents even earlier (56 and 60). My mother-in-law is a spry, sharp 83-year-old, who still lives alone in her own home. So, I wasn’t very well qualified for the job of figuring out the best way to be a friend to Bertha. Sometimes, especially when she had first forgotten a lunch date we had made, I would get frustrated and say, “Can’t you write ‘Lunch with Robin’ on your calendar?” and Bertha would nod, apologetically, but somehow I knew she wasn’t going to remember. My life is crazy busy, but I realized that when doing things with Bertha, I needed to add extra time to my own schedule, or it wasn’t going to work. I had to keep in mind my goal: to give Bertha good experiences and to take her on outings that she will enjoy. Stressing her out to be ready on time couldn’t be part of the equation. It wasn't about me, after all.

Finding Bertha
The first summer, I called Bertha in July. It had been a while since I’d seen her, as I had been busy at work, away on vacation, and so on, and I just wasn’t finding time to make a lunch date. When I rang her number, there was no answer, nor did anyone pick up the phone the following day when I called back. Fearing the worst (she really did teeter around with that walker), I called the superintendent. “Hi, Roseann!” I began. “I’m looking for Bertha and she’s not answering her phone. Do you know if she’s away?” “I can’t give out any information about our residents,” Roseann replied, “but I can take your phone number and ask her son to give you a call if he’s okay with that.” Well, sure, what a dummy I am, I thought! I wasn't a member of Bertha’s family, as much as I felt like it. Her relatives really didn’t know me at all.

Anyway, Bertha’s son, Rob, called me, thanked me for being a friend to his mom, and told me she had been hospitalized and was now in a rehab facility recuperating. The place was a distance away (45 minutes during rush hour), but I found my way there within the next week. Bertha was overjoyed to see me, as I was to see her! I brought her flowers, we visited for a while, and I escorted her to the dining hall, where she met a group of patients for dinner. I told her I’d see her again soon, and I did.

The Grandchildren Project
In the beginning, Bertha told me a little about her family. She grew up near Buffalo, NY. There were many deaths, some tragic. I wanted to hear more, but she didn’t remember many details, and I didn’t want to pry. At some point, her last surviving child, a son, sold her house and moved her to southeastern PA. He lived about 15 minutes away and brought her groceries on the weekend. She spoke fondly of one granddaughter, Kim, who lived in California. She would visit Bertha when she was back in PA. I don’t think she saw her other grandchildren; in fact, she was confused when talking about them. Neither they, nor the spouse of her deceased child, seemed to keep in touch with her. I didn’t know why, but maybe we could help change that.

Before the holidays, about a year into our friendship, I proposed a project: “Wouldn’t you like to get in touch with your other grandchildren? How about we shop for gifts for all of them, and I’ll mail them out for you?” After all, I was very close to my own grandmother, loved to spend time with her, and learned so much from her. Who wouldn’t just love to hear from this adorable little old woman? If she reached out to them, maybe they would respond.

“How will I find them?” she replied to my suggestion. “How do I know what they’ll like as a gift?” She was clearly worried, as she really didn’t know them anymore, and whatever memories she had of them had disappeared. Nevertheless, she seemed to relish the idea, so we pressed on, as it gave us something constructive to do—a project! At lunch one day, we made a list of the grandchildren she could remember. She had no idea how old they were now, but my guess was they could be into their 40s at this point. It was funny when I thought about that—I was 19 when my grandmother died, so I had pictured Bertha’s grandchildren as young adults, but when I did the math, I realized they were probably approaching middle age, and she probably had great-grandchildren as well! I emailed Bertha’s son, Rob, to confirm names and obtain addresses, and he was a great help.

I took Bertha to a local CVS, where everything we needed was at our disposal: small, inexpensive gifts, such as Christmas candy, candles, and ornaments; cards; wrapping paper and bows. Bertha just loved tooling around the CVS with her walker—I don’t think she had been inside a store in quite some time. She picked out generic “crowd pleasers,” and assigned them to each grandchild. She found a box of candy that she liked, as well; I told her it would be a present from me, and our shopping was complete. Bertha signed the cards. At home, I found boxes and wrapped things up, then I mailed the packages out for her.

More Dining Adventures
Over the last year, visiting Bertha became more and more of a challenge. My hearing was bad and so was Bertha’s, so I began to invite other people along on our “dates” to help make conversation. Bertha was happy just to be out, but I was uncomfortable with the silence and also with the pressure I put on myself to engage her. So, my husband, Gary, and I took Bertha out to dinner a few times, so we could both talk with Bertha and think of things to share with her.

I got an iPhone last summer, so when I took Bertha and her friend Dottie (who lived across the hall) out to lunch in September, I was able to impress them by showing the Empty Nest website and the article I had written about Bertha the previous winter. After it was published, I printed out the pages so she could see the article, as she didn’t have access to a computer and really had no knowledge of the concept of reading things “online.”

At that lunch, I also introduced both ladies to sushi, as we were eating at a restaurant that offered several different Asian menus. Bertha and Dottie opted for traditional Chinese fare but were interested in the ritual of eating sushi, so I shared my California roll with them. They even tried out their chopsticks! I think between the iPhone demo and the sushi, they had a good time. Older people like to be wowed by anything novel. Well, think about it—isn’t that what keeps all of us engaged and “alive”?

Tracking Down Bertha
In October, I heard from Dottie with some bad news: Bertha was in the hospital. She had fallen at her apartment and broken her hip. With a phone call, Rob supplied me with the details—she had had hip replacement surgery—so I went to the hospital to see her one Sunday afternoon. By then I was teaching a class two evenings a week, so my free time was almost nonexistent. However, I just had to see Bertha. She slept almost completely through my visit (she was obviously heavily drugged), but at one point she did open her eyes, and she smiled when she saw me.

Via emails and phone calls with Rob, I was able to keep tabs on Bertha—from hospital to rehab center, to a different hospital to a different rehab center, and so the story went. When I would catch up with her, she would seem more and more confused (I’m sure she had no idea where she was), but she always seemed to recognize me and to be happy to see me. And that made my heart glad! Whatever my faults in not coming often enough, they were forgiven, and we just lived in the moment, enjoying each other’s company. On more than one occasion, the facility's staff would ask if I was Bertha's daughter.

At one point, right before Christmas, Gary and I found Bertha in her hospital room, sitting in the chair beside her bed, looking disheveled. We had her Christmas present with us: It was a soft, fuzzy bathrobe, in pale pink. I put it on her backwards, pulling the sleeves over her arms, backwards. This left the back of the bathrobe over the front of her, rather than under and behind her. Bertha really seemed to like that! She looked like a pink teddy bear in that bathrobe. We also brought our family’s “Christmas pound cake,” fresh out of the oven, which Bertha seemed to remember from the previous year. Or, maybe she just liked it! No matter; if she was smiling, we were smiling. As always, I hated to leave her when the time came.

My daughter Sarah and I did our holiday sing-a-long at Highland Manor again, but Bertha was noticeably absent. We brought along a Christmas card for Bertha for everyone there to sign, and they did so enthusiastically. I delivered it the next time I caught up with her.

After the holidays, I found Bertha at her latest "digs," a nursing home in King of Prussia. I brought along some nail polish and I gave her a manicure. The bright pink color seemed to brighten her smile as well as her nails. After all, who doesn’t like to look like “the cat’s meow”? Her left hand was clenched, though, so I held it in mine for a bit, so the polish wouldn’t smear while drying. Then, I wheeled her around the halls, so she could see the rest of the place. She had her supper down the hall in the TV room, where we caught a Denver Broncos playoff game while she worked methodically through the items on the tray. (That was complete serendipity on our part, but later that week I was able to congratulate my old college roommate, who lived near Denver, on her fave team’s win.)

Big Birthday
When I first met Bertha, she immediately informed me that she would be 88 the following month and that in two years, she would be 90. Clearly, she was very excited about reaching that milestone. Now, two years later, as January 30th approached, I got in touch with Rob to see what he had in mind for Bertha’s big day. I thought maybe we could bring some of her friends down from Highland Manor and have a little “surprise." Rob wanted to take his mom out to dinner but wasn’t sure whether he could manage it. In the end, he decided to have the nursing home staff help get Bertha ready and then into the car, so he could take her out to dinner. We picked up Bertha's friend Dottie from Highland Manor (she would represent the group), and we all met at Rockwell’s, in Green Lane—a long drive from King of Prussia, but an old favorite of Rob and Bertha.

Once Bertha was settled inside the restaurant, we handed her flowers, and Dottie gave her a cute little pin. Bertha wasn’t a big talker that day, but she seemed to enjoy the company and the food. I was a little nervous about the meal, as she had been on a diet of soft food at the nursing home, and the food she was trying to chew wasn’t going down too well. The stuff we don’t think about when we plan these things! Anyway, she got enough down (without choking), and the server packaged up the rest for Rob to take back to Manor Care, where the aides would puree it for her.

Then came the birthday cake. The server began to sing the “Happy Birthday!” song, and we all joined in. One lit candle sat atop the biggest slice of yellow layer cake topped with chocolate icing that I had ever seen. And, Bertha went to work! In the end, she polished off nearly all of it. (There certainly wasn’t enough left to include in her doggie bag.)

With the party over, it was time to go home. I gave Bertha a big hug and kiss, and Gary helped Rob get her back into the car. I acted as a third, bracing the wheelchair as needed. Assisting Bertha out of and back into the car was a much larger project than any of us had anticipated. Gary, Dottie, and I waved to Bertha and Rob as they pulled away, then Gary and I took Dottie home.

Saying Goodbye
Well, as it turns out, the kiss I gave Bertha the night of her birthday party would be the last. Less than two weeks later, Rob called. At that point, I had been looking for an opportunity to get down to King of Prussia to see Bertha for several days. Rob said that Bertha had had a stroke the night before. First she was in Phoenixville Hospital, and then they moved her to Abington, even further away. My heart sank; I so wanted to see Bertha again! Rob had called with the news on a Friday evening. I had obligations through the weekend, but I’d get there on Monday, for sure.

When the phone rang Sunday morning and Gary said it was Rob, I knew the news would be bad. Bertha had passed away the night before. Sarah and I played the music for a mass at our local church later that morning, and I felt like every song we sang, we sang for Bertha.

Rob planned a memorial service for Bertha and asked Sarah and I to provide the music, as he wanted to have it at St. Mary’s (which was also Bertha’s parish). We were happy to agree to that! Rob and some of his friends are Unitarian, so we tried to pick “ecumenical” music: “Amazing Grace” and “How Can I Keep from Singing” were among our choices, as were other soothing, love-filled pieces. Bertha had liked to say the Rosary, so Sarah sang “Ave Maria” as a solo. When I had taken Bertha to mass with me in the past, she would forget her hearing aids and so couldn’t hear us singing. I couldn’t help but think the day of her sevice that if there is a heaven, and she was in it, then she would finally be able to hear us!

Rob and his daughter, Kim (who was just as sweet as Bertha had said), had everyone over to the hall at Highland Manor after the service, for lunch. Kim made a terrific ham and bean soup, and hot ham and cheese sandwiches. Because the lunch was conveniently located, Bertha’s neighbors who couldn’t get to the service were able to join in. Rob had placed a number of old photos on a side table, and we all enjoyed marveling at Bertha the young woman, with her husband and young children—a Bertha whom Sarah and I had never known. We hadn’t known her extended family, either, until this year, and it was good to share a meal with them now, expanding our circle. I would miss Bertha, but I was glad to know that I had been a part of her life during her last couple of years.

Befriending the Elderly
Since Bertha's passing, I found myself thinking about the plight of the elderly and what we in this generation can and should do to help. With Bertha, I had a gut reaction to her situation—that she didn’t get out much—and I tried to do something about it. It was probably not as much as I could have done, but she certainly benefitted from anything I did do for her. Spending time with Bertha was time-consuming and sometimes even frustrating, but in the end it was rewarding to both of us. If I could relieve the doldrums of old age for Bertha in some small way, even for a short time, life was good.

I found myself wondering, then, what else can I do? I emphasize with older people: I wouldn’t want to spend long days and nights by myself, not able to get away for a “change of scenery” or to just go for a drive when I felt like it. Anything we can do to be a friend to these people helps them and also helps us. You can’t think about your own problems when you’re taking an 89-year-old woman to lunch. You need to give her your undivided attention.

When I look around, I see that the elderly are everywhere: At the post office, in the supermarket, at church. And, in homes where they remain hidden away from us. So, the need is everywhere. Some of these older people have no family to help them, and even if they do, those relatives may welcome the assistance. Bringing groceries to someone each and every weekend for years can be tiring.

Make a commitment: If you can’t meet someone once a week, do it once a month. Do what you can. Make someone happy, if only for an hour or two. Take a woman to lunch, paint her nails, swap books and CDs, visit a flower shop, take her to get her hair done. Your new friend can tell you about his or her life, about a bygone era. Everyone has a story. How interesting! Stop to smell the roses with someone else who has trouble getting outside to do so, and you will both feel good about it.

If there isn’t a neighbor or local resident you can befriend, look for someone in need via a local organization, or start one yourself. Regardless of the age difference, a friend in need is, well, you know . . . ask Bertha!

And, the links below can help.

Adopt a Grandparent

eHow: How to Adopt a Grandparent

How to Do Things: How to Adopt a Grandparent

Adopt-a-Grandparent Brings Gifts to Nursing Home

Adopt-a-Grandparent Program Westminster Village North, Indianapolis, IN

The Pendulum Online: Students Adopt-a-Grandparent at local nursing home

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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