Lessons On Living From My 106-Year-Old Aunt Doris


My Aunt Doris recently passed away, exactly two weeks before her birthday. She would have been 107. I have been involved in health care for my entire professional life. But the time spent with my aunt at the end of her life taught me more about living and dying than all my experience had prepared me for. When she was 103, she had a fall that landed her in the hospital, after which she agreed, to hire a live-in aide. The aide was caring and capable, but over the next two years, Doris became exceedingly feeble and bedridden, her mind confused. Her voice was practically inaudible when she told my wife, Amy, that she didn’t want to die with a “stranger.” When Amy said, “Doris, we would love for you to come live with us,” Doris, uncharacteristically, began to cry. Doris seemed moments away from death, and we wanted to honor her wish to be with family. Her doctor felt that time was of the essence. We readied our guest room and arranged for Doris to be transported to our home. At our house, she lay nearly motionless in the hospital bed. We began the vigil we were certain would not last long. We hung some family photos that we had taken from Doris’s apartment on the wall next to her bed and sat at her bedside, describing each one. There was little sign that our storytelling was penetrating, but we persevered, hoping to spark familiar memories. Then something of a miracle happened: Doris began a slow but steady journey back to her old self. Over the next few weeks, her cognition was almost fully restored. Doris sat in her wheelchair on our backyard deck. Her vision was weak, but she could make out the trees and see birds fluttering about. We had lengthy talks about her life. Doris was determined to regain her strength and walk independently again. She returned to the exercise regimen she had been doing for years. Soon, Doris was able to raise herself out of her wheelchair and walk with the aid of a walker. She giggled when the dog licked her ice cream cone and her face. She delighted in the reawakening of her senses, asking to smell the newly blossoming lilacs. At one point she looked at Amy and me and said, “I never knew life could be so beautiful.” Her final words, as she passed from life to death, a transition of merciful seamlessness, were “thank you.” Amy and I thought that Doris would be living with us for a very short time, and we had invited her to stay with us thinking we could lend comfort to her in her final moments. But it transformed into something none of us anticipated, bringing new meaning to her life, even at 106. She thanked us for this gift. But in learning about life, love, aging, meaningfulness and the power of connection, the gift was all ours.

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