Had my mother still been alive, today would have been her 94th birthday. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2001. The cause of death was sepsis, which is not a very uncommon cause of death among elderly people for reasons that are not well-known. My mother had been in very good health until she neared her 78th year; I can recall only two times in her entire adult life when she was hospitalized, once for a viral infection in her middle ear, and the other for an operation to remove an inflamed appendix. When she was in her late seventies, she began to have problems with her back. She was eventually diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the spine, again, not an unexpected diagnosis for many of the elderly. Having been a great walker for most of her life, my guess is that she looked ahead and did not like what she saw—a future with limited opportunities for walking, perhaps the use of a wheelchair and/or walker—in short, a more restricted life than the one to which she was accustomed. She was independent and stubborn; when she was hospitalized initially for medical tests, she was in good spirits and was sure she would be able to return to her old life. Sadly, that was not the case. She ended up at a care center so that she could undergo physical therapy to get her back on her feet again. For some reason, she became quite stubborn (more so than usual) and refused that help. And that refusal was her undoing. Had she worked at her physical therapy, she might still be alive today. All these many years later, I understand that she simply could not accept the idea that she would be dependent upon anyone or anything, and the idea that she was suddenly infirm did not appeal to her. My mother had no patience for being old, for the various small irritations and physical limitations of old age. She was vehement about not giving in to old age. What is surprising is that she did not understand her role in her own recovery, even when it was explained to her; had she taken the reins and insisted upon therapy, had she done what it took to get better, she might still be alive. But she had no personal experience with chronic or long-term illness, even though she had taken care of my father, who had debilitating heart disease, until his death. Taking care of him had not prepared her for suddenly being afflicted herself. Her two brief hospital stays must have convinced her to get out of the hospital and back home as fast as possible. I understand her at the same time that I question her actions during the last few months of her life. But I accept what happened even though I don’t understand completely what happened.
In the intervening years, there have been other illnesses and deaths--family members and friends alike—and I have had a chance to witness first-hand how these people tackled the illnesses that preceded their deaths. Illness does some surprising things to people. Some of them simply accepted their diagnoses and the accompanying conditions, others fought against them. Those who fought were mostly younger or middle-aged people. I also know older people who have done what it takes to get well, who were assertive about getting back on their feet again; interestingly, they are still with us. I've also known older people who did what they had to do to get well, but death took them anyway. Along the way, I've learned that you simply cannot know how you would think or feel if faced with a similar situation. And until you step into the shoes of a person who is ill (with a terminal diagnosis or long-term illness) you have no real idea of what they’re going through. It’s best to be there for them, to help out, to listen, to advise when asked for advice, to offer hope, to be positive, even if we don't always understand their situation or their response to it. Not much more is asked of us.