Those of us who live in aged care facilities don’t exactly live with death, but it is about us all the time. From our quite pleasant environment in Canberra there is only one way to go — up or down. We trust that our friends have all gone up, to God in his heaven, or whatever an equally enjoyable dwelling place might be. There is one here who might benefit from going down, but we’ll leave him out of it. I don’t know what the average length of residence here might be, and I haven’t asked. I’ve been here a little longer than two years, and am now the longest serving resident at our dining table. There were six here a year ago, but only three now. Others will arrive to take the vacant places.
We Australians of the 21st century, even those of my elderly generation, are unused to death. A century ago death was common, and at a much younger age. Retirement was set at 65 years because most men didn’t last much longer than that when they ceased to work. Infant death was also common. About a quarter of newborns did not reach five years. All that has changed. If I look around our place, just our dining room (there are four of these), the oldest resident is a woman of 96. Most of us are in our eighties, and most are women. The ladies hang on to their lives, quite obviously. They go to exercise class, and attend most functions. We use first names, and the general ambience is most friendly. But every now and then somebody departs. The man who was the oldest serving resident at our table has returned from hospital, and he is at the end, I feel pretty sure. Suddenly there is an absence and we ask the carers. ‘Oh, she died last night.’ ‘Oh. Thank you.’ That’s the way it goes. Or she might have died in hospital — gone and never returned.
I have a particular reason for focussing on this subject, because my wife is dying. She might get to Christmas, but it will be touch and go. She has dementia, the cruellest of all diseases, and her dementia has taken a sudden and precipitate turn for the worse. Fortunately, she does not have to endure much pain, but the body is shutting off. The family is gathering, and the staff have been most helpful in making that possible. Fortunately, again, the lockdown provisions have been eased, and it is now possible for Victorian family members and those from Sydney to come and see her. She does recognise them, or some of them, but she is quite weak, and cannot stay for long, let alone engage in conversations. She did get out a soft ‘Thank you for coming’ the other day, which was remarkable.
The terrible thing about dementia is that the loved ones cannot do much to assist the victim, though my eldest daughter, my wife’s step-daughter, has done a fantastic job in organising her life so that she can actually get to meet her children and siblings. Another visit is coming, but I’m not sure she will be able to see the visitors. We will see.
We have been together almost thirty years, and it has been a wonderful partnership. We were both refugees from failed marriages, and were both determined to make this one work. It did, from the very beginning. We met in an almost Mills and Boon way, though I was not dressed in a singlet showing my muscles. I was a patient in her ward in hospital, arriving on 1stMarch, 1991. I was to have a melanoma excised the next morning, and was more or less cheerful about it. What seemed like a vast collection of flowers accompanied me, and there were not nearly enough vases for them. Patiently she explained that all would be fixed in time. She had lots of russet-blond curly hair and was exceedingly good-looking. So I was attracted at once. I didn’t know her at all, but she knew who I was, because she was about to graduate from my university. I was in her ward for about ten days, while skin from my right thigh was learning to live with the large wound on my left calf. My legs were up in the air for a while, and I was close to the nurses’ desk, so I saw quite a lot of the Clinical Nurse Consultant (CNC, the new title for the ward sister). She wanted to know a lot about the university curriculum in nursing, which she been through, and had some pertinent comments about. I received a gentle kiss on the cheek when I left, and did the right thing a few days later, with a gift for the staff of the ward.
The excision was actually quite an emotionally draining event, and it took some time before I felt able to live a normal life again. And in that time I ensured that I kept in touch with the CNC, who was able to see how the healing of the wound was progressing. To cut the story short, we had lunch in June, became engaged in October, and married in December. She became, at once, in addition to the demanding job of CNC, the wife of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra. We did a lot of entertaining. The University was new, and needed to be known. If you entertain, in time you will be reciprocally entertained. So from five o’clock we were usually busy. One of my friends, another V-C, said that from 9 to 5 he was a manager, and from five onwards he was a barman. I know the feeling. My new wife did all the hostess stuff as though she was born to it. We settled on dinner parties for twelve, about one a fortnight, and drinks on other occasions. She might have a Minister on one side and a leading businessman on the other. They were charmed. I was deeply impressed.
As time went on her hospital roles widened. She acted as Assistant Director of Nursing from time to time, and was given the job of setting up new wards. The one I had done to was the Surgical ward, and her last, ironically, was the new Geriatric ward, where she learned quickly about the afflictions of the aged, especially dementia, the curse now visited on her.
We both retired early in the new century, and spent a few years doing the travel, touring and learning experiences of the newly retired. In 2012 she showed the first signs of dementia, referred to then as ‘mild cognitive impairment’. By 2015 this was plainly more than mild, and the diagnosis was ‘Alzheimers disease’, later simplified, sensibly, to ‘dementia’. I was told she might have five years before things became difficult. That was a good estimate from her geriatrician. Things have become very difficult indeed.
This essay is a tribute to her, a wonderful wife, a superlative nurse and leader of nurses, a splendid companion and mate. I could have asked for no one better. I hope she feels the same about me.