Γιαννης Παπαδοπουλος

Death is no longer a taboo

By Ioannis Papadopoulos

NORTHBRIDGE- For years the shut doors of Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center kept their secret.

When a resident died an unearthly silence would flood the bright corridors. The staff would shut the doors so no one could stare the body bag.

Death in Beaumont was a taboo.

But, Nicole Croteau, 34, Beaumont’s director of nurses, believes that death shouldn’t be a secret.

Last April Ms. Croteau co-founded the “Peace Team,” a group of ten, whose job is to “help people die with dignity.” They try to comfort the relatives, give mental strength to the staff, and make the residents’ last days less painful.

And there is one thing they do not do: shut the doors when someone dies.

For a visitor, this nursing home, established in 1952 by the Salmon Family, seems like a luxurious resort in an old mansion on a hill in Northbridge. Its maze of stairs leads to big dinning halls and warm corridors with flower tapestries.

But for most of its residents this nursing home is the final step. “They see the door of this place as an immediate death sentence,” Ms. Croteau said. “They know that here they would spend their last days.”

In Beaumont every floor is called a “neighborhood,” and the patients are known as “residents.” About 154 people, in their 70s-100s, live in this home. Some will spend here years. Others will stay for a few months, or days.

From January 1, 2007 through December 6th, 70 residents have died in this nursing home, according to the staff’s records.

“People don’t die from heart attacks or strokes here a lot,” Ms. Croteau said. “They die from pneumonia, and it takes a week, a long period of time, for the body to shut down.”

For years during and after these weeks of dying secrecy was a routine for Beaumont’s staff. They denied the deaths to the other residents. When the funeral home came to pick the dead they would close the doors. They said that they were trying to protect the other residents. They were trying to “move on.”

Ms. Croteau acknowledges how hard it is to live in a place where people die around you. But, she said, it is harder not to reveal the truth to the residents. “Room by room, the woman across the hall, table by table, all of a sudden the person isn’t there anymore.”

Ms. Croteau recalls that one day a resident learnt about the death of his friend in the nursing home when he read the obituary in the newspaper.

Ruth Guilnette, a resident of Beaumont, knows how it is when death knocks the door of your bedroom. Her roommate died a couple of months ago. On a cold morning Ms. Guilnette, a former 3rd grade teacher now in her 80s, sounded afraid. “I wonder when it’s going to be my turn,” she said. “You are not living here. You are just existing.”

The “Peace Team” is trying to deal with worries like Ms. Guilnette’s. Its members are focusing more on the impact of a death to the rest of the residents.

The “Peace Team” is formed of nurses, recreation staff, one family member, and the food service director. They meet everyday at 1 p.m. and discuss about the condition of every resident.

When a resident is in his last days the “Peace Team” takes action. They change the white hospital sheets with colorful ones and they leave in the room their special basket. The relatives can find in it CDs with classic music, aromas, a journal, puzzle books, and books about the dying process.

The “Peace Team” knows the needs of every family. Sometimes the relatives spend a few days sleeping next to the dying resident. The “Peace Team” provides them with foldaway beds. They prepare special meals, and they give them whatever they ask: from beers to bottles of wine. When death visits the rooms of the nursing home the staff covers the body with a white blanket and escorts it to the exit as an act of respect. The “Peace Team” also initiated a memorial service for the dead residents.

In the future the “Peace Team” is thinking of creating a big board with obituaries of everyone who died in the nursing home. This would be a big step for Beaumont. Moving from the silence of years to a board, visible to everyone.

Janet Burke, director of staff development and member of the “Peace Team,” has been working in this nursing home for 20 years. She remembers that back then the staff wasn’t ready to talk or deal with death. Today, she said, the nurses will spent their extra minutes with the dying residents when they are alone in their rooms.

“We feel that they are our family too,” Ms. Burke said. “We want to help them die comfortably.”

Sometimes dying with dignity and comfort comes with a cup of coffee.

Ms. Croteau knows that even the small things can make a difference. On a Tuesday morning the grey-haired director of nurses carried a cart with hot coffee to the third floor. In room 307 a man was melting like a candle on his nursing bed. He barely talked. The grimace of pain on his face said everything. The coffee was for his son. “That’s the only thing he needs right now,” Ms. Croteau said.

Last year Ms. Corteau had a same cup of coffee for herself. Her grandmother died in Beaumont on Easter morning. “When I came to the nursing home outside her door was a cart with coffee ready for me and my family. That made to me a tremendous difference. Someone thought that we would want some coffee.”

It isn’t easy for Ms. Croteau to deal with death. When she started working as a nurse eight years ago at the Braintree Rehab she had to put tags on the dead. “That really affected me. It was terrible,” she said.

Still, every encounter with death is hard for her. “It’s very sad when you are in that room and this person is dying,” she said. “Every single time that person takes the last breath and you are there. When you see that look on the family members you cry.”

But Ms. Croteau will not stop serving that coffee. She will not shut the doors again. She said that she will not stop talking about death. “You appreciate life better when you acknowledge death.”

(This story was published at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in 2008)

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