No glib, superficial entry today. Sorry folks, this one is a little heavy.
A couple of nights ago, we were driving up the mountain from town. It was dark, raining lightly, and a thin fog hung on the banana plants and spiked fences of our neighbors. The headlights flashed across something in the road.
“What the hell?” my husband said, his hands tightening on the wheel. “That was a person lying in the road.”
He turned the car around and rushed back. Had someone been hit by a car, and the driver taking off without stopping (as happened a couple of weeks ago when someone hit our dog–though she wasn’t hurt badly)? The kids stayed in the car, and we got out and hurried to the fallen person. It was an old woman, dressed in yellow polar fleece, but with legs bare under a skirt. She didn’t seem to be injured, and when Alex talked to her, she responded. I ran up the hill to where I’d seen a man standing by his gate.
In garbled Spanish, I tried to explain a woman was laying in the road and that we needed help. He responded in English.
“She’s crazy. Her son takes care of her but she just runs off. No one can get her to do anything.” He shook his head and flicked his cigarette. “It’s the same old shit, all the time.”
I ran back down the hill to let Alex and my dad know what the neighbor had said. We helped her up and started to walk back up the hill, thinking the fed-up neighbor would still be outside and would show us where she lived. But he’d disappeared. We stood in the dark and rain of the street, not knowing what to do. The poor woman was babbling, and the frantic Spanish was made more incomprehensible by the fact she had no teeth. She seemed to be insisting that someone was trying to kill her, and she was never fed, and I’m not sure what else. But she was wearing clean clothes, was not emaciated or in other ways obviously abused.
“Call Jenny,” I told my husband. “She’ll know what to do.” Jenny is our landlady, and has lived in El Cajon de Grecia pretty much her whole life.
He got on the phone, and as I listened to his end of the conversation, all the while holding this poor woman’s hand and half listening to her ranting, I could tell she wouldn’t be coming down the hill to help.
Alex got off the phone, shaking his head. “Jenny said that this poor woman is in fact demented, and that there’s nothing we can do that hasn’t been done a hundred times by others. Everyone has tried to help her, to get her out of the road and back home, but nothing works. The hospital won’t take her anymore. They’re done with her. And,” he said, glancing at my own elderly father who was holding the woman’s elbow, “she can sometimes get aggressive. Jenny said we should just say goodnight and slowly walk away from her.”
“Leave her in the rain and the dark?” I asked, incredulous.
Alex nodded, his face pained. I knew how it hurt him. He’s worked with elderly patients, many demented, since he was about twenty years old and a ward assistant at a rehabilitation center full of elderly, demented patients.
We tried to get her to sit down beside the road, on one of the driveways. We said goodnight and went back to the car. By the time we found a place to turn around again so we could go back up the hill, she was in the road again, her head resting on a tiny piece of soaking wet cardboard.
We were silent riding home. My parents (visiting us for a couple of weeks) were so shocked, they could hardly believe we’d just driven away from the poor woman. We were all in shock. The boys were subdued, asking a couple of questions but then trying to forget what had just happened.
How is it that in a country that supposedly is socialist and has a solid medical and social system, a demented old woman could be left to lay in the street at night? I understand that the culture in most of Latin America is to keep an aged parent in the home, to care for them. That’s admirable. Something Americans could do more of. But when a family caregiver is unable to keep a demented parent safely in the house, shouldn’t there be a safety net for both the patient and the caregiver? My heart went out to the son as much as the mother.
This is not a scene from our stay here that will fade from memory.