En Guard! Fencing the Grim Reaper

Elizabeth Wadsworth


Lengthening morbidity” is how Annabelle Gurwitch dubbed life through extensive expensive medical procedures.  Dub ‘assisted living’ assisted decaying.

When I worked in a nursing home a resident once flagged me down to say, “Be sure to have the nurse wake me up to take my sleeping pill.

I cried my first days on that job changing diapers on incontinent adults, spooning puree into their mouth when they could not feed themselves, debriding bedsores (scooping out potholes), digging impacted stool out of the bed ridden, and hoisting a dead woman up in bed for breakfast.  John, a tall man with wild gray hair and vacant eyes, out of touch with his surroundings, was strapped into a wheelchair daily where he freed his hand to massage his privates all day every day.

Each floor of the nursing home housed various stages of deterioration: unable to care for self due to physical infirmity, unable to care for self due to dementia/senility- mental infirmity, or confined to a floor for both. When I relayed these details to a friend she said, “Oh! They’re not like that anymore.”  “You mean people don’t age anymore?”

I witnessed a machine that breathed for a man, a system that forced air into the man’s lungs (Cheyne-Stokes) that kept him alive when the brain’s mechanism to breathe for him had died.

Death is a line standing outside the ticket booth where folk wait in line to get in not knowing when their turn will be to go in. Some yokel always will cut in line ahead of them and out of turn. We could go back and read their horoscope on the day someone died. Two men we know were sitting in their favorite chair eyes closed.  Their families thought they were asleep. “That’s how I wanna go!” is the accepted reply.  Human mortality is planned obsolescence.  A protracted decline in aging can be grisly, denigrating and humiliating. Assisted living facilities are home to the sick and aged in stages of prolonged deterioration, protracted dying. “If you want a wonderful little creature to love you,” Barbara Walters wrote, “get a puppy,” People visiting animal shelters don’t want sick and aged dogs.

When Medicare steps up to the plate resume gets benched.

Someone wrote, “Love is the bricks, guilt is the mortar,” of family.  Family is the basic unit of the state my college professor taught. A friend told us she is careful not to disclose even minor memory lapses to family.  “Who left that drawer open?” she asked herself.  “Oh, I did. My daughter, the nurse, would be quick to pick up on that, anxious to ship me off to a nursing home.” With aging word recall is no longer punctual; words come in their own good time. Another daughter picked her gray-haired mother up in the car to take her out for breakfast. She ordered off the menu for both of them. The daughter was now the mother.  When the meal arrived they chewed in silence, gazing blankly out the window.

“Johnny got a new bike,” the daughter said.

“That’s nice, Dear,” the mother replied

“I’m signing Jenny up for dance.”

“That’s nice, Dear.” Mother gave her perfunctory reply and poked  her hair with a finger.

“I hear it’s supposed to be a real hot summer,” she said and wiped her mouth with a napkin.  When the bill came she asked to see it and I hoped someday I could go out for breakfast with my daughter not because we had to, but because we wanted to.  


Elizabeth Wadsworth Ellis was an outside child, conceived outside marriage, wed outside her culture, served outside her country in Serbia, Sofia and St. Petersburg, Russia, holds beliefs outside her upbringing and jumped outside airplanes.