As my aunts health declined, I remember seeing her increasing fear of the world. Every stranger that came to the door was trying to steal from her. From the nightly news the world looked like a very frightening and dangerous place. Increasingly my aunt was isolated within the walls of her own fear and isolation.
My aunt, who never married and lived with her mother her entire adult life, became increasingly isolated after my grandmothers death. When my grandmother was younger she countered my aunts propensity to save every “important” scrap of paper and every “valuable” piece of clothing. But as my grandmother declined, their apartment increasingly looked like the TV shows on hoarding.
I learned a few years after my grandmothers passing that my aunt, who was in desperate need of a hip operation, had been crawling to her kitchen to eat, unable to walk any longer. Her intense fear of doctors and hospitals kept her from having the hip replacement operation. We pushed her to get a hip replacement, which she finally did, and while she recuperated, which was a few months because of her decline prior to surgery, my mother and brother went into her apartment and cleaned it up.
Cleaned it up may to too mild a way to describe the plies of paper and clothing filling the apartment. My aunts bedroom had a mattress that was falling apart, halfway off the box spring, and stinking of urine. Her bedroom was piled three feet high with trash. The living room had four foot piles of clothing lining the narrow path to the kitchen. It was a gargantuan job, and done without my aunt’s knowledge.
When my aunt finally returned to her apartment a few months later, having gone from the operation, to rehab, and then to an assisted living facility, she was furious. She became frantic, positive that her precious things had been thrown away, stolen or removed. Within a few months everything thing that my brother and mother had carefully packed into plastic storage boxes piled high in the living room was pulled out and strewn across the apartment, while she searched for different items of clothing and other things.
My aunt never fully recovered from the hip replacement surgery, having waited too long and gotten too weak prior to surgery. It was only a few short years later that my mother, who had been unable to reach my aunt one day, found her lying unconscious by the front door of her apartment. She was dehydrated and weak.
After a short stint in the hospital my aunt was taken for a few weeks to my parents home. But my aunt, never a good patient, was demanding and angry. Finally my mother could not take her sister any longer and moved her to an assisted living facility that was close by.
My aunt raged against the facility, one of the nicest in the area. Even thought we took very few of her things to the facility, she was sure people were stealing from her. Her anger and rage at being placed in a facility continued until the day she died.
There is a particular day that I went to visit her that I will never forget. “Dear,” she said, “there is a man and his family living in my closet. They are stealing my things.” While my aunt and I had always been close, I looked at her with seriousness and asked her what he was doing with her things? “Why selling them of course.” And then she looked at me with tremendous sadness, “Oh my dear, I thought you of anybody would believe me.” She was so disappointed in my blindness to what was really going on.
Then there was my aunts fear of “downstairs”. I remember her telling me that she would never be taken downstairs. “People are taken downstairs and they never come back.” I asked her what went on downstairs, but she had no idea. The lower level of the building was for the memory unit and for people who could no longer live independently.
My aunt never left the facility. After about a year she was moved to a memory unit on the lower level. By this time she mostly slept and ate. But her anger at being placed in the facility never left her. Every time I went to visit she begged me to help her escape. She wanted to go anywhere but the place she was trapped.
After two years in the facility, my aunt died peacefully in her sleep, napping after lunch. My aunt, who had always been claustrophobic did not want to be buried. We had her cremated and spread her ashes in a local stream with the family gathered around my mother, each taking a trowel of ashes and putting them in the stream.