The forgotten people: reflecting on the contemporary social isolation of Canadian seniors

Hong Yu (Andrew) Su is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at Western University

Jessica Chin is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at Western University

Matthew Greenacre is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at Western University

 

 

John is a fictitious name given to an elderly gentleman that myself and some of my colleagues visited on a regular basis. John may be one person, but his situation mirrors that of many, many more across the country. In that sense, therefore, John represents not just himself, but a much greater social predicament. This is John’s story.

John was a man of many unique attributes. He had the charisma to provide a positive impression upon first sight and the humour to keep one entertained for hours with his subtle sarcastic remarks, vocal political views, and general philosophy on life, all coupled with a strong habitus despite being in his eighties with a complex medical history. Behind this outward display of positive energy, however, hid a much more solemn aspect of his life — his sense of isolation, a characteristic seemingly connected with every part of his daily life.

For one of our visits, John requested that we meet him at his home. It was a mid-autumn evening, and his residence was located in a rather secluded part of town bordered by railroads, half-operational factories, and specks of human activity. Upon entering his home, we were immediately greeted by the living room. Scattered around the dimly lit room were pictures displaying what we believed to be his wife, children, and extended family members. John stood in the middle of the room with the aid of his rolling walker and smiled warmly at us. The house itself proved to be quite spacious, with two floors and a basement, and seemed to be well maintained. John was currently the sole occupant.

John proved to be quite open to conversation and time went by very rapidly as the exchange progressed. After listening to him discuss some of his history, we learned that the picture of the beautiful woman was indeed his wife who passed away fifteen years ago from a pulmonary embolism as a result of post-surgical complications. John was very emotional when he talked about his wife. It was evident he deeply cared for her after all this time, and our conversation came back to his wife more than a few times throughout the night from seemingly unrelated topics.

John admitted that he is quite isolated. He spent most of his days by himself in his home, taking care of laundry, cooking, groceries, and general maintenance. Due to his disability, going to social gatherings of any sort proved to be difficult and he was keenly sensitive regarding this matter. He said he had been invited to many weddings, but due to fear of falling and injuring himself while ruining the day of the newlyweds, he avoided the events altogether and resorted instead to sending money and kind wishes. He also used to attend mass weekly after his wife’s death, but subsequently left out of frustration towards the internal strife amongst church members. His extended family mostly lived close by, but they only paid occasional visits to do some basic chores and have brief conversations. Otherwise, John was largely left to manage on his own.

At one point during the night, John discussed his nonchalance towards death. He remarked that he was already approaching his nineties, had seen enough of the world (which was growing lonelier by the day), and that now may be a good time to go before memories of his wife began to fade into oblivion. He expressed a desire to pass away peacefully in his sleep, fearing that someday one of his multiple co-morbidities might take this possibility away from him. We were a bit concerned with his attitude and tried to inquire further regarding his thoughts, but he just laughed and shrugged off our attempts.

When it was time for us to go, John seemed a bit upset. He kindly shook each of our hands and said he hoped we would visit more often. When the car was pulling out of the driveway, one of us noticed that the front door was still ajar, leaving a slit of radiating light. Just as we were concerned John might have forgotten to close it, he emerged from behind, smiled, and waved a slow goodbye. He finally shut the door after his wave was reciprocated by the three of us. The slit of light disappeared, and the street once more returned to its usual darkness.

 


Note: This is a true story. The patient has given his consent for this story to be told.

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