by Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
November 5, 2002
UNSINKABLE, AN OLD CAPTAIN GOES DOWN WITH HIS SHIP
SAN DIEGO -- The tall, cantankerous Navy captain had been on my mind for months. I last seen him last polking his cane at me though a half-open door yelling, "Godammit, I said, get outta here!" I didn't argue with him.
I'd tried to help him get some help but he refused to let anyone take care of him.
He preferred the dignity of falling down and dying in his own home, if it came to that, to the bother of having people treat him like a child. And fall he did. Several times we'd been in the emergency room getting stitches to a bloodied head, or face. No broken bones, but he was working on it.
I finally had to give up on him - not something I do lightly. I spent hours talking with his out-of-state son and making recommendations for things that might help. His father was drinking too much, not eating well and worst of all, driving with only one good eye. But the son wasn't used to pulling rank on the old man and so simply stalled in his helplessness.
They would just let things go until there was an emergency that couldn't be repaired by a quick visit to the ER and a couple of stitches.
The primary doctor wasn't much more help. In the doctor's office, the two of them schmoozed like two old Navy buddies; the captain put on a great act. The doctor wasn't about to insult him by suggesting that this proud old man of the sea needed help, so he agreed he was fine and ignored the clear trouble signs.
It was not an uncommon situation for the frail elderly who live alone: things are out of control, but not enough to have anyone intervene.
So it was with this man. I had to let it go and drive away. When I went back to see him weeks later, his condo was empty; a "For Sale" sign was in the window. I figured he'd gone to a facility somewhere, and made a mental note to call his son and find out where and how he was.
Good intentions fell by the wayside of my busy schedule. Just a few days ago I called to see what had happened to him.
There was a brief silence on the other end of the phone. His Dad had died two weeks earlier. His son told me how things had gone since my last visit. His father had fallen several more times in his home, and there were more trips to the hospital before the family finally decided to do something.
They'd found a nursing home in southern Colorado, not far from where they lived. They rented a minivan and put him in the back and made the 21-hour trip non-stop to bring him there. He slept most of the way, his son told me, his big frame stretched out in the back of the van. His three children took turns driving.
He was at the nursing home one month, and died. He didn't get the pneumonia - the "old person's friend" - or any of the other acute illnesses that so frequently ushers the elderly into the next world. Like an old soldier, he just faded away.
His son told me that his many grandchildren were able to come and visit him during the month before he died. He said his father was 91 years old and just didn't want to live anymore.
I know of a few other older men like the navy captain who just cannot bear to have anyone telling them how they should live. They don't take good care of themselves, and a few drink too much. All are at high risk for disasters of their own making.
But their dignity is one of the few things they have left, and the law says that as long as they are in their semi-right minds, no one can take that away from them.
"He did it his way," the voice on the other end of phone said.
"That he did," I answered. It wasn't easy to watch the old captain go down with his ship, but that's the way he wanted it.
As difficult as it might be for family and health professionals, that is one will and testament that whenever possible must be honored.