She sits in the crowded hall, alone in her wheelchair. As we approach, her eyes light up and she begins to smile. Unfortunately for her, she knows where she is and has her full mental faculties. But she is surrounded by other patients who are unaware of their surroundings, and nurses busily doing their jobs. Her name is Janette. We were privileged to meet her and her husband Roland when my daughter was five years old. They were always kind and hospitable and now we are trying to return the favor.
Janette was born in 1926. She grew up on a farm close to Lake Lure, NC. Her father was an excellent carpenter and her mother a talented seamstress. Unlike many of the surrounding families, she only had one sibling – a younger sister who died at the age of five. Janette said her mother never recovered from her sister’s death. Suddenly she was the only child and had to take on the extra responsibilities that come with being raised on a farm. She never had time to play and, sadly, the innocence every child should experience was stolen the day her sister died. She went to school in a one-room schoolhouse, which is where she met Roland, her husband of fifty-seven years.
Roland came from a family of eight. Like Janette, he was raised on a farm. They married soon after they finished school and had one son. They always remained close to their families, and never moved more than thirty miles away from their birthplace. Like many men in this area, Roland worked at a furniture factory for most of his life. When we first met Roland and Janette they were in their late seventies, and still very active. Roland was usually outside working in the garden, cutting wood, or maintaining his old tractor. Their well-maintained brick home was always warm and cozy. A few years later, Janette fell and broke her hip. She was sent to a nursing home to recover, and even though her hip healed, she still prefers her wheelchair.
Eventually, both Roland and Janette were put into a nursing home. Soon thereafter, we went for our first visit and were saddened to find out that Roland had died. Janette was left alone. Her only surviving family members are her son and granddaughter, who live hundreds of miles away. She always looks forward to their visits, but they are few and far between. After spending time with her, we are always sad to leave. In the back of our minds we know this may be the last time we see her, but we still hope that when we return and walk down that long, crowded hallway, her smiling face will be there to greet us.
So what forgotten wisdom have I learned from Janette? That life can be lonely for the elderly. So far all my interviews have been with people who are still active and have amazing support systems. Janette doesn’t have either of those. She is blessed and cursed to have outlived most of her family and friends. Like many residents in the nursing home, she has been left behind.
I also realized that if I make it to eighty and my children put me in a nursing home, I hope I lose my mind first! Having your mental faculties does have its advantages when you have a meaningful life and are surrounded by those you love. But when you are confined to a wheelchair in a house of strangers, it can be worse than death itself.
by Aubrey Avila
Janette is someone who you always want to be friends with. She is sweet and considerate. Seeing her in that nursing home makes me realize that growing old is sad. Janette is always happy to see us and has been kind to us. Visiting her feels like we are returning the favor. She has a very good sense of humor and makes everyone laugh. At eighty-four, she is someone I look up to.
by Ansleigh Avila