Quality of Life

Jay Michaelson


Is my grandmother dying? It is sometimes hard to remember that only a year ago, she could maneuver herself around, was still interested in going out for lunch or dinner, was someone who, although growing old and in need of care, was still a human being, capable of humor and anger and warmth. She had already begun exhibiting some classic signs of dementia: repeating questions asked only minutes before, telling the same stories over and over, etc. Yet she was, at the close of 2001, still someone who was aware of her world and her place within it.

No longer. Now she has good days and bad days, as do all sufferers of dementia, but even on the good days she is not the vibrant person she was. (It seems that writers on illness always want to remind their readers how vibrant the victims once were, as if to compensate for the injustice of exposing their infirmity.) Today, for example, was a good day, but that chiefly meant not yelling at the nurse. The less said about the bad days, the better.

Last June, in what may have been her final act of will (and desperation), my grandmother began refusing food. She claimed not to be hungry, even as her strength ebbed and moving from bed to wheelchair tired her out. She would sit through the three daily meals at the assisted living facility where she has lived since mid-2000, and simply refuse to eat. The nurses would coax, my mother would coax, and my grandmother would resist. Maybe, some days, she would eat a spoonful of oatmeal.

After some consideration, my mother, sister, and I decided not to force her. My grandmother had always lived life on her own terms, and we would not defy her now. Whose interests would that be serving anyway? There was little quality of life ahead for her, and we all knew it; imposing the indignity of feeding tubes on a strong-willed woman seemed only to serve our own misplaced sense of morality. So the coaxing stopped, the visits from the rabbi increased, and we began to prepare for what seemed to be inevitable.

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January 2003

jay's head
josh ring