Patricia worked very hard all her life. With her children educated and bills paid, the time had come for her to enjoy a well-earned and fulfilling retirement. She sold her business and talked of touring Ireland, playing more golf and sampling the culture of other nations. But sometimes our plans shatter into pieces. Just when she pulled the plug on work her lifelong companion and husband, Mark developed Alzheimer’s disease. Over the next ten years she would become a full-time carer. She was determined that Mark would never enter an old person’s home. Whatever care he needed would be delivered under her roof. But she was in her seventies. Despite the support of family members, her weeks were spent dressing, cleaning, feeding and humouring him. It was a ten-year sentence. His decline affected her. You could see that. It’s not easy losing a loved one. Observing your husband deteriorate, undergo personality changes and becoming more confused and silent is heart wrenching. Patricia was very open about her sense of heartbreak. Those years were the most testing of her life. It was inevitable that depression would steal her passion for life and suck the positivity out of her.
When Mark eventually left this world many people felt that it would be a psychological relief for Patricia. She would be less tied. Her new freedom would allow her to regain her mental strength. But within months those closest to her discovered that they had underestimated the sharpness of her new-found loneliness. Death hurts deeply even if it relieves us of caring duties. Patricia only had one husband. Because of those years of intense dedication to him, she had detached herself from the social world that she had planned to utilise on her retirement. Some of her friends had moved to the next world. Others had stopped calling because they felt that they were in the way. With Mark’s death she found herself with no one.
My work brings me around the country and I make an effort to call on Patricia. Some neighbours maintain that she is doing well lately. I decided to visit her to make my own mind up. I parked the car at the front of the house and made my way to the back. I peered through the living room window. Patricia was sitting on the couch with its back to me. The television wasn’t on. I peered more intensely through the pane to determine whether or not she was asleep. No. Her eyes were open. She was staring into mere nothingness. In that moment it struck me that the only Patricia that I knew was the one that I visited. Inevitably, she would rise to conversing with me on these occasions. She would become livelier and appear more in tune with life. Indeed, such visits seemed to help her out of the darkness. But there was another Patricia whom I didn’t know. And I was looking at her through the window. The Patricia that I was observing was the real Patricia. A lonely woman sitting in the silence. A woman experiencing eternal days of silence. A Patricia that was talking to herself for company. The sentence of Alzheimer’s was not over for her at all. It had thrown a huge shadow over her life.
Sometimes we think that we know it all. We can make conclusions that suit us. As a psychologist, I became acutely aware of how, sometimes, we don’t even know the people that we think we know. It’s important to maintain links. It critical to sustain and enhance supports for people who are lonely or sick. Many people haven’t a clue about what others are going through. The unfriendly work colleague may be suffering from depression. The friend who no longer socialises may be heartbroken. The mother who no longer phones as often may be fading away from this world. Sometimes we need to step back and look through the window of other peoples’ lives.