Did My 102-Year-Old Aunt Live Too Long?

Prolonging life isn't the same as extending death.

Last week, my 102-year-old aunt died in hospice care. My sadness at losing her is palpable; she was my last remaining aunt (or uncle) and with her passing, the death baton has been handed down to my generation. We are next, and watching Aunt Fay over the last few years has convinced me of one thing: I don't want to live beyond my capacity to, well, live. 

In the years before she lost her mind and her ability to speak, Aunt Fay would regularly lament how it pretty much sucked to outlive everyone you love. She was predeceased by her parents, her husband, all her sisters and brothers (including my father,) and all of her friends.

The loss that stung the hardest was when her husband Izzy died in his 80s. She had sat at his side during a lengthy incarceration in a Brooklyn nursing home, visiting him all day every day and taking a bus or a subway or both to be able to do so. On the rare day when she had to be somewhere else, she fretted and worried that something would happen when she wasn't present. She told me that despite their occasional lapse in common sense, the nurses always took especially good care of Izzy because "he was such a sweetheart and flirts with them." The truth is, Izzy only had eyes for Fay. They were childhood sweethearts who could never keep their eyes or hands off one another. I sport the pear-shaped diamond ring he gave her for their 50th wedding anniversary. 

Fay and Izzy never had any children of their own. This elevated the status of her niece (me) and nephews to the top billing of kids in their lives. Fay always volunteered to babysit us, always celebrated our victories, bragged about us to her friends at the Overseas Press Club where she worked for more than 40 years. I like to think that one of the reasons I chose a career in journalism was hearing her speak about the dazzling glamorous lives of the famous foreign correspondents who passed through her office.

Izzy's job was to transport juveniles upstate New York when they got in trouble with the law. For a man who wasn't a dad, he nevertheless doled out sound advice to his young transports who had dads that most of them never knew. Fay remembered most of the kids' names and told us their stories at Sunday night dinners. Teenagers in trouble with the law were victims before they were offenders, she would always say, quoting Izzy.

I'm not sure how Fay managed to live to be 102. She moved to California to be near her sister after Izzy died. And when that sister died in 2002, she moved again to be near my cousin who graciously stepped up to fill the role of Fay's caregiver. For the first few years, Fay managed well in an assisted living facility. But increasingly, the signs of dementia were obvious.

When they could no longer be ignored, my cousin found a lovely group home about a mile from her own house and moved Fay in. She visited her regularly and managed her affairs. She was the frontline in my aunt's battle to avoid death and got to witness first-hand her gradual but steady diminishment.

Fay spent years on her downward slide. There would be some days when she recognized familiar faces; many more when she did not. On my last visit, she stared quizzically at my Chinese daughter named after her sister Sophie, unable to recall my Sophie's adoption a dozen years earlier. She squeezed my husband's hand believing it was her Izzy. We looked at old family photos together and she beamed until she drifted off to sleep in the middle of the day and we quietly left. My cousin reported that the next day, she had no recollection of our visit.

Fay's final years were spent in the group home with three or four other patients, cared for by a loving couple for whom elderly care is a business. She was unable to bathe herself, dress herself, go to the bathroom unassisted or feed herself. She gradually lost interest in reading or watching TV. Conversation faded away and due to a series of brain misfires, she one day stopped speaking altogether. Her words came out as soft murmurs, and her eyes and facial expressions stopped communicating. Near the end, she sat propped up in a diaper and secured in a chair during the day and was put down for naps just as you would the infant that she had become. 

She wasn't in pain. She rarely was grouchy. She didn't complain. The once-in-awhile flashes of cognitive recognition stopped altogether. She just was, an empty shell of a once-vivacious and active woman. She appeared content, although we had no way of knowing. I suspect that her life played as a movie reel in her head, over and over. But unlike a movie, the ending credits never came. It just went on and on and on, without purpose or fulfillment until the day when her lungs made it so that she couldn't swallow without choking. And that's when she was moved into hospice, to die a few days later hooked up to a morphine drip.

I applaud how modern medicine has figured out how to keep us alive. Now it just needs to work on learning how to let us die in peace instead of pieces.

RIP, Aunt Fay. 



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