Lessons from Betty Lou

October 5, 2015

During the spring of 2013 my mom, Violet Bessey, spent a few weeks at Maple Crest Care Center before and after undergoing surgery to remove a benign brain tumor that was causing frequent falls. When Mom was a resident of Maple Crest, I visited her several times a day. Early in her stay, we became acquainted with her neighbor across the hall—an unforgettable lady named Betty Lou Schaefer.

When my mom arrived at Maple Crest, she was lonely and scared. Betty Lou started talking with her within a day or two of Mom’s arrival. She began by asking my mother if she’d had any trouble sleeping the night before because of the disruption caused by John, a resident who bellowed, “I need help!” at the top of his lungs instead of using his call button. Mom mentioned how reassured she felt to be able to have a conversation with someone who still had all her marbles.

Betty Lou noticed my frequent visits to my mom’s room, and it wasn’t long before she shouted, “Come on over here!” and I obeyed. I noticed the leopard-skin cover on her bed and was drawn to her outgoing personality, and I knew she was somebody I wanted to spend time with.

I soon learned that Betty Lou was born in 1927, the same year as my mom, but her health problems were far more incapacitating. She was bedridden and received nourishment through a tube. But her mind was much stronger than her body, and she continued to be fully engaged in life.

It quickly became apparent that Betty Lou was aware of everything that went on at Maple Crest. One day she told me, “The door to my room has been open since I came here five years ago, and that’s not going to change.” Soon I was stopping in Betty Lou’s room daily to say hello. If I had my mom’s dog Buddy with me, Betty Lou made it clear that he was welcome, too.

On May 22, 2013, Mom was finished with her post-surgery rehab and ready to return home. Before we left Maple Crest, I walked across the hall to say goodbye to Betty Lou. She looked me in the eye and asked, “Will you come back and visit me?” Without hesitation I replied, “Yes, I will.” From that point on, I visited Betty Lou every Sunday afternoon unless I was sick or out of town.

During my weekly visits our main activity was talking. We were able to do a lot of talking in two and a half years. I learned about Betty Lou’s parents, family life on their farm near Bennington, and Betty Lou’s older sisters, Mae and Janette. Betty talked about her nephew Michael, his wife Kathy, and their family, including their daughter Angie and her son Carter, a little guy who was born shortly before Angie’s husband Cole died of cancer. We talked about work and travel and cooking and gardening. We looked at photo albums, including the wedding album from Betty Lou’s marriage to Wilmer Schaefer in 1973 when both the bride and groom were 46 years old. Sometimes Betty talked about staff members at Maple Crest to whom she had become particularly close, and I was fortunate to meet many of them. If things had not gone well for Betty during the previous week, she told me what had happened.

Friendship grows over time, and Betty Lou became a dear friend because of our weekly visits. She taught me some valuable lessons in the most effective way possible—by example. Here are just a few of the many lessons I learned from my friend Betty Lou:

  • Let people know that you appreciate them. Each Sunday when l walked into Betty Lou’s room, she smiled and said, “There’s my girl!” or “I knew you would come!”
  • Stay engaged in life. Betty Lou cared deeply about her family. She had a big network of friends, and she became acquainted with many of the people who worked at Maple Crest. She also watched quite a bit of TV, and she often heard about local and national news events before I found out about them.
  • Find joy in small things. Betty Lou delighted in her battery-operated candles, plants, jewelry, TV shows, music, pictures, holiday T-shirts, Avon products, Hallmark movies, and the caps that I knitted for her.
  • If you want something, ask for it. Betty Lou opened the door to our ongoing friendship by asking me to come back to Maple Crest and visit her.
  • Don’t indulge in self-pity. Betty Lou didn’t complain about the things she could no longer do. Instead, she focused on the things she could She talked with everyone who came into her room, watched TV, listened to music, ordered things that were advertised on the Home Shopping Network, and made phone calls to friends and relatives.
  • Speak up! Even though Betty Lou was bedridden for seven years, she didn’t take poor treatment lying down. Because she was so articulate, she was able to speak up when problems arose. She was personally responsible for the firing of more than one employee who had treated her callously or with disrespect.

During the last couple of months of Betty Lou’s life, she was in and out of the hospital several times. I continued to visit her, sometimes more often than once a week. When she became too weak to talk, I sat beside her bed and held her hand. I feel blessed to have known my dear friend Betty Lou, and I will never forget the lessons she taught me.

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