Raging against the dying of the light
Fine china and glassware, some antique, cover Bernice Maltby’s Skyland home, but the near 96-year-old woman dying from congestive heart failure would shudder at the notion she’s fragile or dull.
On the contrary, the avid bridge and card player retains a wit as sharp as glass and a penchant for sweets — despite being a diabetic.
As the end of her life draws near, the idea of watching her diet has become a joke, she admits.
But Maltby is still living it up, surrounded by the foundation of family and Barton Hospice workers to provide comfort and symptom management.
She has trouble breathing at times, she said, with an oxygen line tucked behind her living room chair.
She doesn’t leave her house, but hospice workers, family and friends come to her.
“She doesn’t need a staff; she’s got us,” granddaughter Kathleen McDonald said.
Maltby, who said she misses driving, has received hospice care for seven months. In comparison, many hospice patients average half that amount of time.
Maltby talks about her approaching death with the same ease as next week’s birthday, admitting she didn’t think she’d live this long. Family and friends are throwing a party for her Monday.
“I never gave it a thought. When I got into my 80s, I thought, ‘Gee whiz,'” she said. Casino legend Harvey Gross attended her 80th birthday party. Now, her three daughters are nearing that age.
What’s the secret of a long, prosperous life?
After saying she has “no idea,” she paused and later surmised it may be “in the genes.” Her father’s half-sister lived to her age.
Maltby, who used to run a grocery-store chain in the San Francisco Bay Area, remained active over the years. She formed the South Lake Tahoe Cancer League 31 years ago.
“I’ve had a good life and a wonderful husband,” she said. Henry Grove died in 1967.
The two spent their honeymoon in a tent in Carnelian Bay in 1932. She wiped a tear from her eyes at the thought of him.
“He’d want a cake at 11 o’clock at night, and she’d get up and bake it,” Olson said.
“She would say to me, ‘Give me a hug like Papa used to,'” McDonald said of her grandmother known as Shanghai Grandma, G.G. and Queenie through the years.
McDonald said she’s taken on the same traits, including a love of cards.
Catching her breath from a jaunt with her walker from the living room to the game table, Maltby picked up a deck of Sahara Tahoe cards.
When she played blackjack, she never feared doubling down, she said.
“On 11 with the 6 up,” McDonald said, jumping in. “Is it any wonder I became a dealer?
“It’s going to be weird to know I can’t call her. We’ve been very close,” McDonald added.
The three-generation trio raved about the quality of life the family has been able to spend since choosing hospice care.
Hospice is not a place. It’s a concept of caring that brings comfort and support to people in the final stages of a terminal illness and their families. Family members turn to the method of care when a patient no longer responds to treatment used to cure.
Hospice stems from the Latin word “hospitium,” meaning guest house. It was originally used to describe shelter for sick travelers returning from religious pilgrimages.
The first hospice unit in the United States was established in New Haven, Conn., in 1974, according to the Hospice Foundation of America. Today, more than 3,100 hospice programs in the nation have cared for 540,000 people.
While covered by many insurance programs, hospice still isn’t fully utilized by family members or doctors.
“It’s not only the doctors’ (choices). The families don’t want to give up (on cures). But I think it’s getting better. Now physicians are realizing they don’t have to be fortune tellers,” said Barton Hospice Supervisor Julie Grimes, who helped start the unit in 1997. “And in medical schools, they’re even teaching death and pain control (methods).”
Grimes thinks the word is getting out at Lake Tahoe and into the Carson Valley — another region Barton serves.
Barton Hospice is accepting donations over the holidays, and Grimes wants a community organization to handle an annual fund-raiser to help meet the financial drain most hospice units face.
It’s also looking for volunteers, now numbering eight at the lake and five in the valley.
“It’s a very intimate, personal, private time that’s had a huge impact on me,” Barton Hospice volunteer Pam McCracken said. In 1995, her ex-husband died — an experience she said helps her empathize with the hospice clients.
She got involved because she wanted a way “to connect with the community.”
“It’s an awkward time for most people. But I’ve found most people, because they’re allowed to die at home, are more at peace,” she said. “Doing this sort of thing is a blessing.”
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