The cage of independence (2013) by Monika Sosnowska


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For many seniors across Canada, living alone can be more restricting than liberating.

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The cage of independence (2013) by Monika Sosnowska

  1. 1. THE CAGE OF INDEPENDENCE For many seniors across Canada, living alone can be more restricting than liberating. BY MONIKA SOSNOWSKAEileen Mitchell was in a hurry to meet her neighbour Sylvie that early May morning and failed tonotice the rug beneath her feet as she rushed to close the window curtains in her small Kitsilanosuite. In a quick second, her frail 91-year-old body plummeted downwards, her left shoulder collidingviolently with the solid edge of the love seat. Soft cries eventually reached the suite across the hall,where Sylvie was patiently waiting for Eileen to arrive. Following a frantic 911 call, Eileen was takento Vancouver General Hospital to undergo surgery on her fractured shoulder. A recuperation centrein Vancouver’s Point Grey neighbourhood became her home for the next three months. Confined to abed, Eileen yearned to be back in her apartment, near the neighbours and friends she has known sincemoving into the building in 1968. “I will go home” she proclaimed aloud when the longing for herindependence, her daily walks and the morning newspaper became unbearable.It was two o’clock in the afternoon the following August when Eileen was finally dropped off at herbeloved apartment. As she walked into a home she hasn’t seen in months, she realized that althoughnothing has officially changed, in reality, everything did. The apartment remained full of the art decofurniture and photographs of her parents and friends. Teddy bears, given in gratitude by the parentsof children Eileen nursed to health years back at Saint Paul’s Hospital, remained neatly placed on topof the couches. Newspapers, kindly saved by her neighbours over the last three months, were stackedhigh on the dinning room table. As Eileen stood there at the edge of the living room, the hunchbackshe developed over the last few years looked more prominent than ever. She began to feel a ping offear she’d never felt before and asked herself, “What am I doing here?” Having been so determinednot to end up in a nursing home; Eileen didn’t even consider the challenges of living alone followinga serious injury. “How will I ever make it here on my own?” she thought aloud.For seniors like Eileen, the absence of family caregivers can make living alone a dauntingundertaking and lead to psychological distress and illness. Those without relatives to care for themoften depend heavily on help from formal sources such as government and social organizations, butare ultimately encouraged to take care of most of their domestic chores and personal care. Thismeans that Eileen and other seniors living independently must repeatedly rely on assistance fromtheir friends and neighbours.Eileen never pondered the fact that she may end up a childless and unmarried senior, yet this is thereality of her life today. Born in 1920 just outside of Regina, Saskatchewan, she was raised byadoptive parents and recalls her childhood as a happy one. “I was their only child and enjoyed itbecause growing up in the Prairies, I was always playing outside,” she says in a soft spoken voice. “Ihad a busy life and good parents.”A chance encounter while visiting a friend in 1939 changed her life. Mickey was tall and handsomeand the two fell madly in love. “We used to have such a good time,” she recalls joyfully. “We werealways out dancing or going for walks.” An engagement followed shortly as the couple began to plan 1
  2. 2. their life together. However, before they were able to formalize their union, Mickey was called intoservice in the Second World War. “I told him that I’ll be here when he comes back. To me there wasno rush; we had our whole lives to spend together.” Eileen was 22 years old when an officer knockedat her door one cold December evening to inform her of her fiancé’s death. “I never wanted to marryanyone else afterwards. It’s just one of those things.” she says quietly, not breaking her gaze eventhough tears begin to accumulate behind her thick and oversized glasses.Crushed by grief, Eileen debated going into the Navy but her parents persuaded her to remain inVancouver to work as a nurse at the St. Paul’s Hospital. “I’ve always loved children, especially babiesso I began to care for the premature babies. It was a difficult time for everyone and the hospital keptme busy, but you know what? I wouldn’t miss those years for the world.” She concludes with herfavourite saying. “It’s just one of those things.”Like Eileen, the majority of the 4.3 million seniors in Canada remain on their own either because theyvalue their independence, are not qualified for nursing home care, face long waitlists for subsidizedhousing, or because they are urged to remain in their homes as long as possible. Meanwhile in themove to cut healthcare costs, hospitals are encouraged to discharge patients earlier than ever. Withthe recent cuts to senior services, countless ailing seniors remain unaided and incapable of taking careof their needs, often relying on others to care for them. Mobility is the primary concern for seniorsresiding alone and many require assistance to get around. Eileen uses a walker and also relies on taxiservices; others may depend on wheelchairs while nearly all rely on help from others. “I’m slowlyhealing but at times it hurts. A nurse comes by once a week to help me and make sure I’m taking mymedications. Sylvie takes me grocery shopping and Ed from next door prepares meals for me,” sheadds in appreciation.Rising healthcare costs and significant senior population provide challenges in caring for ailingindividuals who want to remain at home. Nonetheless, providing professional and communityassistance a few times a week remains a less costly option than caring for an individual at agovernment-subsidized home. For Eileen and other seniors who are unwilling to leave their homes, italso remains a better option. “I didn’t want to live in a nursing home and I wanted to be back in myhome,” she adds.Nevertheless, Eileen remains upbeat and is one of the few who has a strong support system. Shelooks forward to visitors and even though she is living alone, she is surrounded by people she canrely on. She recollects how she spent her day, “It was quiet, just straightening things around andgetting rid of things. Being in the hospital for three months, things have piled up, you know? And Itook it easy because I knew I would have an evening out. I didn’t feel like going out anyways, it’s socold outside.” She adds with so much sorrow in her eyes, “Coming home to nothing, that’s hard.When I got home, for the first time ever I was suddenly lonely. I asked – where is everyone? That’sthe hardest part, being lonely. But it’s just one of those things.” 2