The video is grainy and has a low frame rate, resulting in jerky, poorly tracked motions, but the action is easy to follow as GG slithers down to the foot of her bed, slides out past the roll bars, and shuffles towards the bathroom door. We would be proud of her for moving so quickly after nearly two weeks of refusing food, but it is five in the morning and we have already been up to help her three times tonight.
She marches doggedly forward, balancing herself on the dresser, the bedside table, the doorframe. She needs that help because she hasn’t been able to so much as sit up for more than fifteen minutes without feeling dizzy for more than a week. She hits a snag as she approaches the bathroom door, because her catheter bag is still hooked to the side of the bed and she’s reached the end of her rubber leash. Determined, she marches onward, legs pushing and body canted forward like an arctic explorer pushing against a blizzard. Finally, the catheter pulls free, springing back towards the bed and leaving a streak of bloody urine across the floor.
GG has dementia. She doesn’t remember that she has it, just like she sometimes forgets her name or that her husband and dog both died in the last six months. At times she slips into a deep spell, during which every woman she talks to is her youngest daughter and every man is the baby boy who died hours after birth nearly seventy years ago.
We try to take shifts. With three to four adults and two teenagers in the house, we generally have enough eyes to watch her, but overnights are the hardest part. Barb wants to care for her mother and will often refuse to let Alli or me take the night shift. That will have to change, or we’ll have to get a bed alarm so GG can’t get out of bed without us knowing. Conversations are being had about nursing homes and residential hospice, but in America the gulf between understaffed dumping grounds for old folks and glitzy end of life facilities designed to extract every penny from wealthy geriatrics and their stockbroker families is wider than the Grand Canyon.
Hospice has given us morphine to use overnight, to reduce GG’s pain and help her sleep through the night, but we hesitate to use it. The last two family members to be placed on hospice care died within a week of starting morphine. We know, intellectually, that they didn’t die because of the medication. We know that they were on death’s door already and if anything we should have called hospice sooner to ease their pain. But all the intellectual knowledge in the world doesn’t sooth Barb’s fear that if she opens that sealed envelope in the refrigerator, her mother will die.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that hospice morphine is red and bitter, like cartoon poison.