Forget Me Not: Sad truths of being an elder

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I started delivering flowers to elders in nursing homes in December 2006, nearly a year after my grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Leavitt, died in a nursing facility in Denver.

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Noelle Leavitt Riley

The last two months of her life were very sad — she did not want to be confined to long-term care. Instead, she wanted to live with her sister Gertrude, but unfortunately that was not an option because of the level of care she needed.

Her death and the loneliness I saw other seniors endure at the nursing home is why I started the Forget Me Not flower delivery.

On Wednesday, my husband, Shawn, and I took our first Northwest Colorado flower delivery to Sandrock Ridge Care & Rehab in Craig.

Throughout the years, each delivery has been very different. Some are more difficult than others, and our visit to Sandrock was extremely emotional and tough for a number of reasons.

When we arrived, we set the box of donated flowers given to us by The Flower Mine Gift Shop in the dining room. It was around suppertime, and I knew that we’d give most of the flowers to residents as they ate.

But I first wanted to deliver flowers to the two women who I wrote about in one of my October Forget Me Not columns — Debbie Harris and Betty Rice.

When Shawn and I stopped by Debbie’s room, I saw that her bed was empty, so I figured she already had left for dinner. We crossed the hallway to visit Betty, and she was lying in bed, hardly moving.

As I approached her, I realized she was crying. She informed me that Debbie had died three days earlier. My heart hit the floor.

I grabbed a tissue for Betty and held her hand as she wept for her best friend. She then said, “She promised that she would never leave me.”

Now, for society to pretend that living in a nursing home is not a lonely life is a disservice to the human race. It’s extremely lonely. In my humble opinion, residents don’t get enough visitors.

They find companionship in one another, and that’s what Betty and Debbie did — they found comfort in their friendship.

When I interviewed Debbie in October, I couldn’t help but wonder why she had not spoken to her three daughters in more than 15 years. She didn’t want to tell me, and I didn’t push the issue. Now that she’s gone, I’m curious if she had an opportunity to talk to them before she passed.

I’m guessing she didn’t. That’s heartbreaking. What’s also poignant is that Debbie only was 58 years old. She struggled with the most extreme version of multiple sclerosis and was paralyzed from the chest down.

She found comfort in her friendship with Betty. They were each other’s family.

After I gave Betty multiple hugs, I handed her a bouquet of flowers. For a short moment, a small glimpse of happiness showed in her tear-filled eyes. We said a quick prayer, and I left her room so she could continue the mourning process.

Shawn gave me a hug and a kiss, and we proceeded to the dining room to deliver the remainder of the flowers, where we sat and chatted with the residents. It’s not as though we drop the flowers off and leave. Instead, we went around to each table, passing out vases of flowers, asking the residents their names as they received their dinners. Some residents — who I assume suffer from various aliments — barely could communicate.

Others were able to talk to us and thank us for the colorful flowers. Yet this particular visit had a cloud of sadness hovering in the air. It wasn’t just because Debbie had died either.

The residents truly seemed lonely. It was as though they longed for something better, and I can’t blame them. It’s so exhausting trying to understand why the elderly end up in places they don’t want to be as the end of life nears.

I’m 34 years old, and I know that I certainly don’t want to be confined to a nursing home when I enter the “elderly” age bracket. Who would? So how can we change the course for seniors?

The only answer I have is that we need to show them love and let them know that they are not forgotten. That’s the Forget Me Not mission. Please reach out to an elder that you know and let them know that he or she is loved.

I’d like to thank Shirley Balleck, owner of the Flower Mine, for donating two buckets of flowers to us so that we could fulfill that mission.

Noelle Leavitt Riley is the managing editor for the Craig Daily Press and the Saturday Morning Press. She and her husband run the Forget Me Not Foundation where they take donated flowers to nursing homes to let seniors know they are not forgotten by society. Reach her at 970-875-1790 or nriley@CraigDailyPress.com.

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