Who Are Orphan Elders Among Us?

The Chain-Smoking Ex-Nun

It was a chain-smoking ex-nun who taught me what my job required. More than the law firm, more than the fiduciary classes, she taught me that my job is often as “midwife into heaven”. She was one of the first “orphan elders” I helped as trustee and health agent. She taught me that an educated and intelligent woman with dementia might still be able to do the most difficult New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, but not be interested or able to buy her own shoes.

She was a bit of a rebel and would light up her cigarettes inside and out, whenever she pleased. Even though it was against the rules in the assisted living facility, and she was nearly kicked out. Her friends told me she used to hang out on the church patio during Mass to smoke with a friend, and she would often argue with the priest about his homily. She had a PhD in English which she had used to teach high school students in East Los Angeles during the 1960’s. Eventually, she left the order, married an ex-priest, and continued her public service in the County of San Francisco.

She came to me because she had one car accident too many. She was not quite sure how I could help her, but we found a way to build trust over time.

One day I had taken her to visit her doctor and secure a POLST to reflect her end of life care and wishes. I had to leave her for a few minutes in my car to deliver the documents. While I was gone, she lit a cigarette in my car. Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t let anyone smoke in my car. When I returned, she looked at me sheepishly and snuffed it out. At that moment, I could only smile because her stubborn clinging to her routines was her way of embracing life while she still had breath in her. THE POLST we obtained that day was crucial in making sure her end of life was handled at the hospital as she had wished because she was taken unconscious to the emergency room just a week later.

She left a legacy reminding us that stubborn, smart, educated women may still need help one day. The ACE Fiduciary Group, ANPC will be there for them to complete the circle of care for the “orphan elders” in our midst.

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Loren Emmanuel