Dr. Eleanor Barbera

I lost one of my two mothers-in-law last Monday, five weeks after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We had expected Audrey to reach 100 years of age, like her mother, but she died shortly after her 91st birthday, having spent her 90th year traveling and doing water aerobics three times a week.

Audrey had filled a hole in my life left after the death of my beloved great-aunt many years ago. Whenever I phoned my MIL, she’d answered the phone with a chipper, “Oh hello, Darling!” Emails began with the salutation, “Dear Heart,” before launching into the latest goings-on at the CCRC where she was the head of several resident programs.

After her diagnosis, she enlisted peers to take over her responsibilities, giving them her notes and training them as if they were new employees. She considered beginning a program at the care center during her brief stay, “Can you believe they don’t recycle here? I’m going to make some calls and see if we can get that started.”

She spent her last weeks shipping sentimental items to various relatives and, when she became too weak, she began instructing her sons to do the same. A steady stream of family members and friends came to say goodbye to her as she sat in her bedside chair with her makeup on and a scarf neatly tied around her neck.

It was exactly the way I’d want to go if I could have my choice. 

In the days after she died, I phoned her sons and notified family members on our side of the family. I called a few of my friends and tried to get extra sleep. I confirmed my parents’ upcoming lunch invitation. I spent quality time with the cat, and with my family. I ate some chocolate.

I returned to work, heavy-hearted, to minister to elders who weren’t feeling well. As many readers undoubtedly know, it can be painful to grapple with eldercare issues and losses simultaneously at home and at work.

I didn’t tell the residents what had happened because when they unburden themselves, they shouldn’t be worrying about me.

Still, I found them ministering to me as much as I to them.

A woman in her 90’s thanked me after her initial evaluation, saying, “You made my day!”

A new lady and I bonded over our dismay at national politics. She spontaneously gave me a hug as I got up to leave her room.

A 95-year old woman commented as approached her for our weekly session, “Oh, Eleanor, I don’t know what I’d do without you!”

A man in his 80’s smiled as I entered his room, telling me, “You have no idea what it means to me that you come to see me. You are such a blessing.”

“I’m glad you’re finding it helpful,” I replied.

What I thought, but didn’t say, was that the feeling was mutual.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is the Gold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category of the American Society of Business Publication Editors Midwest Regional competition. A speaker and consultant with over 20 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care, she maintains her own award-winning website at MyBetterNursingHome.com.