Below is an excerpt from the book Experiences: Life in a Continuing Care Retirement Community, which is a compilation of essays and poetry written and published by residents of Kendal at Longwood.
By Helen Ford
I lived at Kendal for two years before the onset of my illness; what a great blessing that was! The time was spent in a normal way, getting to know fellow residents, learning the ways of the community, and becoming comfortable in my cottage.
When I received the dreaded diagnosis, cancer, I immediately felt the support and diligence of our medical staff. Nurses helped to educate me and recommended various doctors whom I should see, all the while surrounding me with kindness and loving care. They mentioned to me the name of a Medical Assistance Companion, a new resident, whom they thought would be willing to accompany me as I made my way along unknown paths. Also, once word of my condition circulated around the community, a number of residents offered all the kinds of help they knew I would need. The support of this loving community played a huge part in allowing me to discover “my new normal.”
Hesitantly, I made the call to Carol, the recommended companion. Would I feel comfortable with a person unknown to me, when I was feeling so miserable? My apprehension was quickly resolved as I discovered Carol to be an upbeat, happy person who also happened to be a nurse. She seemed to know exactly how to guide me through the trying days of chemotherapy. Sitting in with me during my oncology appointments, she took careful notes on what the doctor said so that I could more easily explain things to my sons who lived at a distance; then while in the treatment room, she would busy herself knitting quietly by my side for two to three hours as the chemicals slowly dripped into the selected vein of the day. Drawing upon her bag of colorful yarn, she began to create sweaters, shawls, hats, while I was dozing off and on. When I would waken, there she would be beside me, her fingers flying!
During this long period of exhaustion and nausea, our residents shared a marvelous assortment of thoughtful gifts- a small bunch of hand-picked field flowers in a tiny vase, a poem or two slipped into a get well card, regular hand massages and with them the gift of touch, relaxation, and good conversation, personally made cards with special messages, and convivial visits helping to make me continually feel part of the community.
The intellectual gifts were amazing! Stimulating conversations kept my brain ambitious and alert. One resident went to the library and found books that she thought might interest me. Another shared her British magazines so that I could indulge in a different culture. Very special was a bouquet of glorious gladiolus raised right here in a Kendal garden. And there was a woolen prayer shawl to warm my shoulders or legs. Then food, averse to it as I was, consisted of well-intentioned gifts of specially prepared simple lunches and delicious homemade soups, mild enough to eat at this queasy time. These presented on very pretty dishes or on a uniquely interesting tray.
Quietly, my neighbor Priscilla accomplished the repetitive task of food shopping. I greatly benefited from a volunteer’s trip to the post office, for I needed many stamps for my house-bound volume of correspondence. While many notes of support came from Kendal residents to my open box, I also wanted to write responses to the notes and calls from members of my family and friends from far away.
Then when I was strong enough for a slow walk on the path around the glorious red maple in front of my cottage, a friend or two accompanied me, providing good companionship. Never once did I feel “stuck” in my cottage or lonely. Perhaps I drew upon an early experience when in 1945 I was stricken with paralytic polio. Then, as an eleven year old child bed-ridden for four months, my mother administered Sister Kenny hot packs. They along with the twice-a-week visits of a physical therapist, were meant to help my stiffened, painful muscles. As a few nerve sprouts grew and attached themselves to the deadened leg muscles, some of these muscles were able to be retrained. Importantly, I learned how to live a distinctive creative life. For this I am so grateful!
Journeying along the cancer trail, like polio, was overwhelming, at times bringing deep discouragement and tears. At other times I felt worn out or tired of all I was experiencing! If visiting with a friend, we would respectfully share these private moments with acceptance.
Being able to remain in my cottage home while undergoing the six months of weekly chemotherapy treatment was very positive for me! I loved the visits of Chris, our Kendal nurse practitioner. I well remember the day she visited when I was sitting up sewing instead of being supine. Not only that, but I mention proudly to her that I had made my bed earlier in the day! How good it felt to do a simple daily task again, pulling up the sheets and blankets tightly. Smoothing out the wrinkles, pleasuring in the beauty of an especially colorful April Cornell patterned bedspread during the day as I entered and exited the bedroom. Much better than pulling up a bundle of disarrayed bed covers at 8 p.m. as I readied my exhausted self for a good night’s sleep. Similarly, I was also protective of my desire to wash my own dishes, even though piled high from a few days before. When inspired, I found that putting my cold tingling fingers, newly affected by neuropathy from chemotherapy, into the warm dish water, sloshing the sponge over the dishes, and placing them after a hot rinse into the drying rack, was a pleasurable reward in itself!
Meeting with the interns whom Chris occasionally brought along on her visits proved intriguing, as these young women were eager to observe how I was dealing with the physical and mental aspects of my prolonged illness. Surprised to realize that I had become a mentor along with Chris, I shared my fears and hopes from the vantage point of being mid-stream in my treatment. I puzzled at length about the medical pros and cons of major surgery. Empathetically they listened to me as I was trying to figure out whether to go for surgery as a next step. The decision had to be totally mine, and that in itself made me quite apprehensive! I’m guessing the young women picked up some interesting psychological insights into my dilemma during these low key late afternoon visits!
As the weeks rolled along, I became stronger and began to get out and about in an electric cart loaned to me by Kendal. I looked forward to brief conversations in the halls with residents and happily received their enthusiastic encouragement. The whole community seemed to be cheering me on! Very slowly my blood was beginning to build up making me feel much better, and hair began to grow back on my head giving me a more natural appearance. Instead of chemicals, the vibrancy of life was surging through my veins!
Then it came time for me to get down to the nuts and bolts of a surgical decision. What path was I going to follow for my ovarian cancer, stage III? It was my call. Surgery was the recommended treatment with the best known outcome for younger women in similar circumstances. After an interview with the surgeon at HUP in Philadelphia, it seemed the natural thing to do, seeing that I could combine this surgery with another surgery which needed to be done. I signed the necessary papers without hesitation, but didn’t fully realize the extent of my commitment until weeks later!
There was no time to worry or stew about the decision made since I immediately became caught up in a flurry of activity to make myself as strong as possible for the surgery. Pushing and pulling elastic bands with both arms and legs, as well as time on the NuStep, and brisk distance walking were a few of the challenges. All of this was accomplished right here in the Physical and Occupational Therapy Department where we worked together to strengthen my entire body, but especially my weakened leg muscle left from the onslaught of polio almost 70 years before.
Gradually the days ticked by, and with the support of the medical staff, bolstered by the good wishes of many of the residents and friends, I faced major surgery, actually three procedures rolled up into one.
Not knowing how my 79-year-old body would react to this tremendous stress, but trusting in the skills of my surgeons, buoyed and upheld by the power of prayer, as well as being Held in the Light by my Quaker friends, I stepped forward, almost as if walking on water. No time for second thoughts or fear when the head surgeon stopped by my hospital bed, greeted me with a broad smile, and told me that I was next in line for surgery that afternoon of February 28, 2014.
Fortunately, all went very well, and the surgeries moved along more quickly than anticipated. The chemotherapy had done a spectacular job! For a handful of days I recovered in this busy, noisy teaching hospital, and then returned to Kendal. What pleasure I experienced while being pushed on a gurney down the halls of the Westmorland nursing area, towards a quiet wallpapered room near the end of a hall. Ah, its feeling was subdued and restful. I was “home” and very comfortable, taken care of by an efficient, well trained medical staff. My sons need not worry about my care. Along with delicious food which I selected from a menu each day, occupational and physical therapy kept me busy, pushing me almost to the point of exhaustion. When it was determined that I was strong enough and physically able to handle living in my residence, I was moved back home to my cottage by the staff and settled in with their help. Evening meals were delivered to me there until it became time for me to join other residents in the dining room for social interaction. Kendal had seamlessly eased my way to recovery!
And so, with my cancer in remission and with the continuation of good “all around care” provided by Kendal, I am experiencing new life! Present treatment ended symbolically a few days before Easter with the completion of five sessions of brachytherapy (radiation.) Thanks be to God, I was able to celebrate a milestone birthday and step into the new elder stage of life to be enjoyed fully at Kendal with friends and staff!
For more information about what it’s like to live at Kendal-Crosslands Communities, give us a call today at 610-388-1441, or visit us here to request your free information kit.