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TITLE: Etta for a Lifetime
By Constance Bronson

A profile about an elderly woman who lived with us for a few years and the family struggles that would give her heartache, if only she knew.
By Constance Bronson

One look at Etta’s hands told me so much about this strong 93 year old woman. Her swollen knuckles and paper thin skin spoke to the hard life she had lived. She had very little education and married very young, much like my own mother. Etta had given birth to eleven children, six of whom were boys. She had survived four of them and was still going strong.

She had worked hard over her lifetime. She and her first husband and all those children lived in a run-down house in a small rural town. Etta had worked cutting wood, gardening, and a full-time job outside the home. And she processed and canned the harvest she gleaned.

Etta had dementia and severe short-term memory loss. She could visit with her children when they came to Providence House to see her, and before they had been gone ten minutes, she complained saying “You’d think with as many kids as I have someone could spend a little time with me.” Or she would ask us why she couldn’t live by herself in her own house, with her cat.

Her memory loss was so great that several times a day she had to be shown which room was hers. Then she would scold herself for not remembering where her bed was.

She wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find her bed so I made room signs for the doors to the bedrooms. She couldn’t remember which was her place at the table either even though she sat there three times a day.

Etta also had severe urinary incontinence. She wore disposable briefs with a liner just like several of our residents do. If we waited for her to feel the urge to go, she would be soaked through her outer clothes and onto the chair cushion. So we prompted her at least every two hours to go into the bathroom and check her brief. Most often she was soaked, her pad heavy with urine, but she hadn’t felt it happening, so she didn’t believe us.

She’d say, “I’m old enough to know when to use the bathroom. And I never needed anybody to tell me when, especially not a man!”

She really got upset when my husband Dennis followed her into the bathroom, which he needed to do frequently. I explained to her that her bladder and the muscles that support it are just tired and stretched with all the babies she had, and reminded her, “You are 93 years old , you know.”

She was utterly amazed to learn her age. “Am I really that old? How did I live so long? Oh, I know they say the good die young, so I must be an ornery woman, I guess”. All of that was settled, for this toilet visit anyway. But we would go through it almost every time, because she couldn’t remember it.

Etta had gone to grade school with the brother of Ollie, our gentleman who turned 100 while he was with us. So he knew Etta when she was in first grade, in that tiny three room school house. They had some very lively conversations at the dinner table. But Etta couldn’t remember even having dinner, let alone what was said.

Etta’s youngest daughter and I had been in grade school together. We had kept in touch our entire lifetime so it was only natural for her daughter, Lillie, to bring her mother to our foster care home. We had fixed her fees at a lower scale than most, because she really didn’t have many resources.

Besides working in a bakery, Etta at one point in her life owned and operated a café in a near-by town. I remember as a little girl going there to get pie. Knowing that Etta knew everything there is to know about cooking, I was a little intimidated at first until I found that she didn’t remember anymore. Etta always had a good appetite so my cooking must have measured up.

Etta loved to read. But now she never finished more than a page because she would forget having just read it, so she started over again and again. It’s strange how the brain works. Etta couldn’t remember much, yet she picked up on our coaching of another lady to take big steps with her walker. If Janet was doing the “Alzheimer’s shuffle” Etta would remind her to take big steps. Janet could pick up her pace and take big steps when prompted, for about ten steps, then back to the shuffle. It actually was a help to us because Etta’s “Take bigger steps” would alert us that Janet was on the move.

Sometimes when we take an elderly person in, we get caught in bitter family disputes, custody battles, and ill will that spills over onto us. Etta’s case was like that. Her daughter had moved into Etta’s house with her and found a job near-by so that she could hire day care for Etta and still be with her every weekend and after work. That was okay until Etta ’s memory problems made it unsafe to live alone. And items were found to be missing from the house, because people who might come in during the day, supposedly to help, realized that Etta couldn’t remember what she owned, not even her clothing. That’s when her daughter brought her to Providence House.

Once Etta was placed with us, her house fell into the daughter’s hands. It wasn’t much of a house, but Etta had signed it over years before she got the dementia. The remaining children decided to object to decisions their sister made regarding Etta’s care. They came to visit her frequently for awhile during the legal battle against their sister. They had not visited her at all before that. So from Etta’s perspective, that was a good thing, although she didn’t remember once they left.

When it was time for the guardianship hearing, the siblings testified that we weren’t feeding her properly. They told the judge that their sister had made a poor decision placing Etta at Providence House. From their viewpoint, we had conspired with their sister to use up whatever resources Etta had, just so there would be no inheritance for them.

We had to sign a legal agreement stating that we would provide any and all information for the rest of the family, upon request. They had some really strange ideas about things they thought their sister had done.

In the end, the judge could not get any of them, except Lilly, to commit their time and provision for their mother. So it was decided in favor of Lilly, and the sons stopped visiting their mother. No sign of them at her birthday, nor Mother’s Day, no Christmas. No cards, gifts, or visits. Just because they hated their sister so much. And they hated us too, because we “helped Lilly get away with all of Etta’s assets.”

It was a blessing that Etta couldn’t realize what her family was doing. She remained oblivious to their tactics, which eased her into grace in her last years. She was evaluated to be admitted to hospice care, but was hospitalized before the paper work could be done. She passed away two days later.

She was ready to go Home. She was very tired and had only her daughter’s love and the love of God. Of course, we had grown to love her too. But we didn’t attend the funeral for Etta because we wanted to remember her the way she was in our home. She was feisty and strong and sweet. We still miss her because she was with us a long time. She taught us lots of things about growing older and needing to depend on others for our daily needs. It wasn’t easy at all for her, but she still could smile and laugh and pray. And she did.
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