Dying alone

DYING ALONE is an entry to the Museum of Perth’s Covid-19 Digital Archive written by JULIE McCLYMONT, about her father James Clarko who was unable to see his wife Edith and their children in his last days. 

THIS story describes the loss of our elderly father, affected by hospital and aged care restrictions on visiting hours and limitations on funeral attendance due to Covid-19.

In this terrible period of social isolation; at the least best time ever; our father James Clarko, former history teacher and former Speaker of the Western Australian Parliament, entered residential care at Chrystal Halliday Karrinyup. 

Jim had first spent four weeks in Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, following a seizure.

During this period the hospital had implemented steadily more restrictive visiting hours until he was allowed one visitor only for one hour a day.

This meant it was almost impossible for his beloved wife to see him, particularly once the Covid Clinic occupied the front half of C Block. 

On the last day she saw him alive, he was sleepy and confused and initially did not recognise her. 

Fortunately just as the end of the hour approached he awoke, smiled and said “Hello Edith”.

We made the decision to transfer him to a local care home, knowing that they were in lockdown, but having no alternative as his health was declining and we were no longer able to care for him at home. 

We had intended to greet him in the driveway at the care home to reassure him but this did not work to plan. 

The driver told me Jim had believed they were taking him home (his dearest and most persistent desire) and when told of the real circumstances he could not be calmed without sedation. 

I cannot comprehend the feeling of desolation which must have overcome him, when he awoke in the strange environment without us.

Jim was provided appropriate and caring support at Chrystal Halliday for 13 days. 

However he was alone, confused and heartbroken. 

All his life he had had a fear of hospitals, and of being alone. 

In his confusion and declining capacity he believed he had been abandoned by his family. 

Like most West Australians during this terrible time, his family and friends accepted the visiting ban and did our best to give him comfort and hope, by sending dozens of cards, hoping to assure him we would see him soon. 

We could not speak to him by phone or social media, or see him face to face. 

During these 13 days I saw him once; via a “balcony visit” where I stood in the driveway and waved to him on the balcony above. When told to do so by the carer, like the good little boy he had been, he waved to me. I hope he knew who I was and that I loved him.

Despite our efforts, he had no hope within his heart; and on April 7, 2020 we were called urgently to the care home. 

It took some time to “sign us in”, be issued the electronic pass and to sanitise our hands. As my mother walked into his room, speaking words of love to him, he died. 

We hope he knew we were there.

Frustration

I could express our frustration at the rules regarding funerals – the limit of 10 mourners meant not all his immediate family were able attend let alone the hundreds of friends and community supporters who meant so much to him. 

Our simple ceremony focussed on his extraordinary character and the philosophy he had taught us: Friends are family and Family are friends.

But I will just say to those who made the rules, which I support even in my grief: This visitation restriction was a cruel policy. That there must be many other similar stories around Australia and the world. Where much loved elder members of our communities died alone and in desolation. 

What was intended to keep them safe kept them from the loving arms of their families and friends at the time of their greatest need. That if given the choice of living for another few months or so, or seeing their family, Dad and many others would choose family. This is a burden we will carry. Let us hope that this most wonderful, resilient generation forgive us for the loneliness we forced upon them without their consent.

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