Beatrice’s Story

Beatrice: I have to be bolder than I ever was.

I learned that at every age, we need to find ways to make a contribution, someone to care for, and something to look forward to.

The Faces of Our Dreams are Still Around Us: Beatrice’s Story

“You’re wondering why I’m here.”

She is sitting in the lobby of the nursing home. Her scarred little face and her lovely full mouth twisted to one side is a shock at first and I am glad her daughter Isobel had forewarned me about the effects of the automobile accident. But the chocolate brown eyes still dance a welcome under curling white hair as we hug each other.

“It doesn’t seem much like your kind of place,” I replied.

“Well, there was no choice. You see, after the accident I lost my sense of taste and stopped eating, it didn’t seem worthwhile. And if something spilled on the floor I couldn’t get down to clean it. Isobel came on weekends, but then she moved to Toronto with her children for a better job. I had a TV and radio with a tape recorder, a stereo, and lots of books, and I’d just sit there and cry. A social worker came to visit and said it was a depression, and I said, ‘To heck with this, I’ve got to move.’ That’s when I decided I wanted to live. I didn’t, after the accident; I wondered why I hadn’t died.”

“Are you glad you didn’t die?”

“I was thinking about that one day, and I began to think of all the interesting things I’d done since then. So I’m glad I didn’t. But it was close.”

Beatrice tells me that she cannot see, hear, taste or walk as well, and it takes twice as long to do what she wants to do because she cannot do them the way she used to:

“You have to plan everything you do and not get mad at the whole thing. You realize it won’t come back.”

“Is being old what you expected?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t think I’d continue to think young.”

“What do you mean, ‘think young’?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just part of me. I still want to do what I’ve always done, just like my parents did when they were aging. I just have to remind myself that my body’s old and that you can’t do everything, but you can do something, like I found a pool that has special days for disabled people and now I can swim. Next I want to find a place where I can go dancing!”

She had thought that coming back to her home town would be comforting—old friends and places, “but it was probably a mistake because they’re no different than when I grew up, just as stodgy as they ever were. They seem friendly but really they’re not, if you don’t fit the mould. The nursing home provides the necessities, but at first I thought I’d go crazy. The staff were friendly, when they had time, but hardly anyone else even talked! It’s not age or disability that has you going downhill, it’s that the people around you don’t share any of your interests. So it’s hard to find anything to do in the present, anything that’s worth remembering. I’m really fortunate I can still get on the bus. Although it’s hard to make up my mind to do it.”

Both small town girls, Beatrice and my mother met at university in the early ’20s and shared a wonderful interlude of new and exciting experiences before marriage and raising families. Now she says that when she “came out of her slump” and “realized where I was, I knew I had to keep on learning. I picked up where I left off all those years ago. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do until I took a course at Elderhostel and then I thought. ‘Oh wow, this is it!’ Next year it was theology at Waterloo, archaeology was part of that. Then astronomy. I passed exams, even when I had a pacemaker put in, and realized there’s nothing the matter with my memory. But you need other people because talking and sharing is crucial to learning and memory.”

By the time she was physically unable to travel to courses she had proved to herself that her “mind was as good as ever” and decided to learn the computer so she could write the weekly newsletter, and a family history for her grandchildren. As she said, the everyday task in a nursing home—”where everything is done for you even when it’s not necessary” is to stay active and involved. She’d been very active with the Girl Guides, reconnected through a young friend and is now an advisor: “Imagine finding young people who want to know about your experiences!” she said.

Knowing how connected well-being is to learning and memory she “objected to the quality of life in the home,” and researched complementary health care on the Internet.

“I know from my own experience that most doctors are not interested in the chronically ill, they just want to give you a pill and forget about you. Are you supposed to forget about yourself too? And live in a drug haze? I’m the house member of the patient’s advocate’s group and I bug the board about the food and the strong chemicals they use for cleaning. If I didn’t take the initiative to make connections in town and here in the residence I would just have to live the life of the residence, which is no life at all.”

Beatrice says that taking a leadership role is not “natural” for her. Growing up and at school she learned how to keep her opinions to herself. “If you wanted to go out with a man or be invited anywhere, that’s what you did. Most of the professors didn’t ask you anyway.”

After she married, her husband was very critical, putting her down all the time. She didn’t know “why he needed to do that”; she’d worked very hard and felt she was a good wife and mother. And so, when the children were older, she left her husband. “He was very angry, that was a disgrace, you see. For him.” She tells me that leaving him forced her out of her shell. “I never thought I was any good. Had never had a good job, never made any major decisions like that, except to be married, and that wasn’t a decision; girls got married. After the divorce I had to make my own decisions, and it was good for me. Painful though.”

“And now you have to be assertive to survive in the nursing home.”

“I certainly do.”

“It seems to me that you have it all there, but you hold yourself back.”

“Well, you know that you have an opinion, but you don’t think it matters to anyone else, and so mostly you don’t say anything. Except that now I’ve been speaking out a little.” She describes the members of the Women’s Auxiliary, who do things for residents thinking they know what they want. She had publicly disagreed with them in meetings, “which didn’t go down too well.” She’s amused at people’s reactions to an old woman’s speaking out.

“It seems to me that in your own way you’ve been assertive all your life.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, you don’t give up, do you? You went to university when not many women did. You left an abusive marriage and made a life, bringing up adolescent children on your own. You decided to live after the accident. You went to Elderhostel when you knew you had to keep on learning to survive. And now that you can’t get out as much, you’ve found—even invented—other things to do that are interesting.”

“Well! Well, you have to have someone to care for, to make a contribution. And you need something to look forward to.”

For Beatrice, reminiscence is not a life review, or a search for meaning. When she is feeling down, or can’t sleep, remembering the past is a way of feeling alive, of remembering that she has had a full life, and of connecting that life to who she is now.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve done a lot of different things, lived a lot of different lives, so to speak. I think about the places I’ve been, university days, the sports I played. After a while I’ll think, ‘I used to know that boy quite well, what is it we used to do?’ Pictures keep on unrolling, the layers peel away, and things I haven’t planned on will pop up, and I’ll start to think about how I went dancing, and if he had a car or not … and then you wonder … different things that trigger your memory. And then, after a while, I’ll go to sleep and I’ll dream. I dream in colour.”

She laughs and says, “Sometimes I have a struggle to stay connected among so many lives, so it’s good to talk about it sometimes, because no one knows them now but me.”

“There is nobody left who is a part of those memories.”

“That’s right. See, when I talk to you, you knew some of those people, even if you were only a child and then a teenager, and that makes it seem more real and not just a dream. And, of course, your mother…memory is a bit like housecleaning; you can’t keep everything, you’re bound to throw out some of the things you’re going to want.”

“And keep some of the things you don’t?”

“That’s right, the bad memories. My body reminds me all the time when I’m tired or not busy and it’s harder to get rid of that stuff.”

“Sort of creeps up on you unawares.”

“Yes, it does.”

“What do you think memory is for?” I asked her.

“That’s a startling question. I don’t think you could live without memory. It’s life. What has been and is and is going to be. I don’t see how, if a person doesn’t have memory, how she could live in any sense except physically. I can’t just sit there and not have a thought. I don’t know how people do that. I always have thoughts, like pictures, always in colour. And I see the movement—like the conductor on a train swaying down the corridor, and I hear how the wheels sound as the train slows, and how I would wake up and look out the window. You know, if the young knew how important memory was going to be they’d take care to make good ones!”

“Like you have! Remembering in pictures, activities, through relationships. It’s very sensory—pictorial and kinaesthetic, isn’t it?”

“It is really. I trust my mind.”

Beatrice went on to found an Elderhostel at Cambrian College in Sudbury that “catered more to disabled people,” saw Science North from a wheelchair while she was there, and “had a wonderful time.” She became president of the Resident’s Council and belonged to the Regional Executive, both of which met monthly.

I laughed as I imagined her “speaking out” pleasantly, quietly, and very firmly. She went to the Provincial Annual Meeting of Homes for the Aged at the Convention Centre in Hamilton and visited homes in Barrie, Durham, Owen Sound, and Shelburne and wrote a report on what she found, calling it The Observations of an Insider.

“I would like to have said ‘inmate’ but didn’t think that would be useful,” she commented to me in a letter. And I saw her crooked little smile and those raised eyebrows expressing what she didn’t say.