As I age, I read the local obituaries more often to see if any of my friends or former colleagues have died. I am sure I am not the only senior who has developed this informative yet morbid habit.
I have noticed the obits have a style, a form and, moreover, describe in peaceful, glowing terms a person's passing: "Passed away at his home surrounded by family and prayers;" "passed away peacefully in his sleep;" "all who knew and loved her are invited to a celebratory potluck at her residence;" "in lieu of flowers, the family asks that you make a donation;" "a celebration of life to be held Sunday, Feb. 7".
I do not doubt that a few of us die as described in the obituary pages, a select fortunate few. But just as true is that many of us die alone, despondent and institutionally medicated. These stories never make it to the obituary pages of our local newspapers. This was true for my friend Antonio Valladares.
Deaths and Funeral Notices
Antonio passed away alone, in pain and despondent at Seaview Rehabilitation and Wellness Center on the evening of Jan. 15. He was 69. Antonio was born in eastern central Mexico, in the state of Puebla. He was an undocumented immigrant who, according to the coroner, shared a social security number with six other undocumented workers.
In November of 2014, Antonio, who had suffered a debilitating stroke eight years previously, moved to Eureka. He came not of his own free will, but was arbitrarily shipped here from the Wish-I-Ah Skilled Nursing Facility in Fresno, which had been decertified by the state. Shlomo Rechnitz, the owner of the Fresno facility and of Seaview Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Eureka, chose not to bring Wish-I-Ah into compliance. Instead, he closed it and sent its patients to his other facilities throughout the state. Without discussion or consultation, Antonio ended up isolated from other Spanish speakers here in Eureka, save for a small portion of the transient housekeeping staff at Seaview.
One of Antonio's favorite pastimes while at Seaview was coloring. He loved bright vibrant colors; red and green were his favorites. Antonio's room became an art gallery filled with adult coloring book pages. He died surrounded with the reds and greens of his efforts to remain Antonio Valladares to the end.
Antonio is survived by scores of other Seaview residents, who through whispered word of mouth, have learned of his death and deal with the fear and depression that come with knowing they might face a similar end.
Antonio was preceded in death by countless other patients at Seaview and other facilities, people whose life stories, loves and passions we will never know, and whose passings were never honored or celebrated.
There will be no celebration of life for Antonio. It is the policy of Seaview not to inform its residents that one of their neighbors has died, and no ceremony will be held to mark his passing. No opportunity will be provided at the facility to allow anyone to grieve for the death of Señor Valladares.
I know it is not likely that I will ever read that sort of obituary in our local newspaper, but I cannot help but wonder if we wouldn't all be a bit better off if we could. In so doing, we would be facing the secrecy and anonymity of institutionalized death. We would confront the fact that we have created a system and a culture in which many of us die horribly lonely and despondent deaths.
If we did that, we would be giving meaning to the life of Antonio Valladares.
For the complete context of Antonio's story, check out a great article by Linda Stansberry, "The Shut Out," in the July 9, 2015, edition of the Journal.
Oh, yes, in lieu of flowers for Antonio, think about becoming a long-term care ombudsman through the Area 1 Agency on Aging. Contact Program Manager Suzi Fregeau at 434 Seventh St., Suite 209, Eureka, California. If formal volunteerism is not your thing, go out to Seaview on your own. Meet people. Listen. Become a witness to their life stories.
John Heckel is a long time resident of Humboldt County who has been advocating for patients at Seaview for more than three years, first as an official long-term care ombudsmen and then informally as a "friend." He writes a monthly column on aging for the Senior News and is a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in psychology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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