My mum, my daughter, my grandma – four generations. Photographed at home by Oliviero Toscani, 1974.
This page is dedicated to my parents.
A letter from my mum
My name is Myra Cohen and I am 75 years old. From 1968 to 1985, I worked as an Art Therapist at Hill End Hospital in St Albans, a psychiatric hospital with 500 patients. I worked with a colleague and friend Patricia Ball, and when she retired in 1978 I took on her role as head of department. I continued to see her, probably about once a fortnight on a regular basis. Around 1995, after I retired, I noticed a slow deterioration in her behaviour. She was then starting to show signs of early Alzheimers. Whilst working at the hospital, in addition to colour we used poetry for our patients to express feelings, and on 1 November 1972 The Guardian newspaper gave their work a very good write-up. Patricia Ball has also published four books of her own poetry. I mention this only to give you some insight into the type of person she is. When it was evident that she could no longer cope with day-to-day living – and being an only child herself and childless – I managed to get Patricia her own room in a very good nursing home close to where I live. The home itself has been upgraded to BUPA status. It’s really very good, in an open and attractive position in Hertfordshire. The staff are attentive and helpful, but they cannot put life back into a mind that ceased to function and this is my cry! I go and visit Pat every Wednesday but I cannot take more than 30 to 45 minutes. I’ve watched new clients come in – mostly they are stroppy and abusive and unwilling to accept what is happening to them. After two weeks, I see them, eyes vague, by then mostly quiet; they just sit, and sit and sit – or sleep, curled up in their chair. What are we calling life? Not this! By all means, nursing homes, good ones, are invaluable for the elderly that have clear minds and are able to communicate. These people, some of whom held important roles in their working lives, are just waiting to die. They also have the added indignity of being incontinent. I love Pat – she still knows me. Her eyes are still as blue and her smile as gentle, but nothing else of her remains. Take on the responsibility of saying WITHOUT MIND, LIFE IS MEANINGLESS and offer to us death with dignity. We owe it to each other.
Myra Cohen, born 1923. Studied sculpture at Regent Street Poly 1954-56, then painting at St Martins School of Art 1956-58. Art Therapist 1968-85. At present my mum is retired. She attends regular meetings of U3A (University of the 3rd Age) and swims 30 minutes daily. Makes great soups too!
An article published in the Observer Newspaper, 29.01.06
She didn’t deserve it and she thought she had covered herself against it. On 3 December last year, my mother finally defied the doctors and, although they had declared ‘all her vital organs working’ and released her from intensive care, she died in the night, alone in a ward where she could not speak and had not the strength to call for a nurse if she needed one.
But it should have been so different. We had been told: ‘I have done my living will, darling. It’s with my doctor.’
Painter, sculptor, potter, swimmer and member of numerous groups, at 82, my mum was aging brilliantly, an inspiration to us all. Her joie de vivre was famous. As with all wonderful Jewish matriarchs, she could also drive you nuts, but that was all part of the mix.
On 15 June 2005, she was admitted to hospital with a minor stomach complaint only to discover a condition that required emergency surgery. Three months and three separate stays in hospital later, a second operation was deemed necessary and it was from that she never recovered.
Fully conscious, but unable to communicate other than by an imperceptible nod or shake of the head, my kindly and smiling mum’s face became Edvard Munch’s Scream. There was nothing I could do to fulfill her wishes.
The last two weeks of her life were a living hell for all of us and somehow we, as a society, need to take more responsibility for how we deal with the end of the journey. We have to allow people some choice and the ability to demand death with dignity if that is their wish. It’s no longer good enough for doctors to continue to save lives at all costs, with no thought for the quality of life that they are saving us for. This is not just a question that concerns the elderly – it can happen at any age – a car crash, a motorbike accident, a stroke.
We need to decide where we stand on the most contentious of issues and campaign for a change in the law. Why did the living will signed and witnessed correctly mean nothing to the doctors when I took it into the hospital? Why should I have had to beg and plead, sobbing, when she thought she’d had it sorted? How can we treat our pets with more humanity than our parents? Or, God forbid, our children?
We demand respect and choice in so many other areas of our lives, so how can we ignore this most important of experiences just because it will be hard to monitor, hard to legislate for? There has to be a humane and intelligent way forward and we should all be committed to finding it, if for no other reason than it could be our loved ones next.
Family Future Positive: An Explanation