Remembering the Lost

By | September 16, 2018

You may have noticed the discreet way in which many nursing homes and assisted living places acknowledge a resident’s death: A bud vase on the mantle or at the reception desk. A single rose. A card announcing the deceased’s name.

Death comes too frequently to these buildings to allow for memorial gatherings, several administrators have told me. Residents would become distressed, constantly reminded of loss. Instead, although people may attend the funeral of someone they felt particularly close with, the homes commonly default to the vase, the flower and the tasteful card.


Staff members at the Hebrew Home singing at memorial service. From left, Larry Applewhite, Liisa Murray and Olivia Cohen.Credit The Hebrew Home at Riverdale

But when Faye Hellman died in November, at age 95, her neighbors and friends at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale assembled in a lounge for what it calls “A Time to Remember.” With her family and the staff members who cared for her during the nine years she lived there, the group sang songs and said prayers and remembered Mrs. Hellman.

She loved casino trips and won $ 50 on her first try at a penny slot machine, a staff member reported. She knew all the Hebrew Home gossip and relished corned beef sandwiches with kosher pickles. A volunteer recalled that when his wife died at the Hebrew Home late at night, Mrs. Hellman sat and cried with him.

“In a nursing home, death is expected — it happens on a regular basis,” said Charlotte Dell, the Hebrew Home’s director of social services. “The bed is filled shortly thereafter without much discussion or dialogue.”

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A few years back, Ms. Dell decided that was an inadequate response and started this custom.

Since then, each “neighborhood” of 40 or so residents in this big five-building complex decides when it’s time for an hourlong memorial, for one resident or several who recently died. The gatherings typically take place once a month. With 845 residents, the Hebrew Home had 227 deaths in the past year.

“It brings the community together,” Ms. Dell said. “Despite all the losses, there’s tremendous comfort and support in sharing the experience.”

You’d think nursing homes and other senior residences would know how to handle death. (And if you’ve had experience at a place that does, please tell us about it.)

But when I called Barbara Moscowitz, senior geriatric social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital (a.k.a. super social worker), and asked how most homes reacted to residents’ deaths, she answered in three words: “Badly, badly, badly.”

Residents and their relatives frequently tell Ms. Moscowitz how troubling it is when someone who’s had dinner with the same people for months or years suddenly disappears, and nobody explains or says anything much at all.

“They feel diminished and unwittingly demeaned as not being able to handle the truth,” she said.

Who knows better than people in their 80s and 90s that loss is part of this phase of life?

Not discussing it, which runs counter to every tenet of mental health, is far more upsetting than acknowledging it, she argued. At other ages, would a flower on a mantle be the way we silently reacted when a friend or neighbor died? “To create an impression that you have to smile and forget is the antithesis of good health,” Ms. Moscowitz said.

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She was just getting started. “I’ve heard people talk about ‘my value, my place in this community,’” Ms. Moscowitz went on. “’Am I going to be reduced to a bud vase? Will I not be remembered? Do I not matter?’”

Six years ago, she also began holding memorials — called “Time of Remembrance” and held every three to four months — at the three senior housing buildings in Boston where she directs the hospital’s Senior HealthWISE program. Many residents there have no immediate family.

Like the Hebrew Home memorials, the gatherings involve music and poetry and a chance for people to talk and laugh and share memories of the departed — which, in this case, include those who’ve left for nursing homes. They, too, will not be back.

True, some people choose not to attend, but most do; these have become important community events. “I see people walk out a little taller,” Ms. Moscowitz said. “They feel good, remembering their friends. They think, ‘I’ll be remembered, too.’”

The New Old Age