When I was an Executive Director of a mental health agency in the California mountains, a brother and sister came to talk with me about their elderly mother, “Mary.” They felt that she needed to be institutionalized or kept in a long-term care facility. They expressed concern about her cognitive ability and safety.
“My God, she talks to the birds, and I think she believes they talk back to her.”
Her brother nodded his head in agreement.
They showed me some legal documents from their attorney. If I agreed that their mother was unable to adequately care for herself, and sign the papers, she could be committed. I was wondering how genuine their concern was and if there were ulterior motives. Either way, I wanted to ensure Mary’s well-being. I told them both that I would visit with their mother and report my decision back to them soon.
In the next few days, my new administrative assistant and I drove along the winding mountain road until we came to the address I was given. I had not called ahead so that we could observe the situation without any preparations from Mary.
The secluded older home was set on a beautiful, clean, clear water lake and nestled in a forest of towering pine trees. We walked past a well-kept front yard. I knocked on the door, and after a few minutes, a tall thin woman with kind eyes and a welcome smile opened the door and looked at us curiously, but she didn’t say anything. I explained that her children were concerned about her. She was dressed in warm winter clothes. I explained that we were asked to see how she was doing. I introduced myself and my assistant. As she looked us over carefully, she was obviously in some deep contemplation.
After a few moments, she apologized for her lapse in hospitality, and she invited us into her home.
“Come, have a seat at my kitchen table while I make you some of my hibiscus tea.”
We followed her through the comfortable living room and sat at her large cherry oak dining table with a pedestal.
Her home was immaculate with everything in its place. The typical family portraits hanging on walls and knickknacks on the shelves.
“Oh, dear!” She exclaimed.
She turned off the burner under the teapot where the water had evaporated.
My assistant and I shared a subtle glance. I knew what she was thinking as she was troubled after listening to the family members stating their concern and was leaning toward my signing the legal documents. The teapot only increased this certainty.
Mary filled up a different teapot with water, turned on the same electric burner, and encouraged us to try her carrot cake she had baked earlier while the water heated. Each of us was given a generous portion of cake while she took a smaller slice. I was not surprised that the carrot cake was delicious.
“Although unnecessary, it is lovely of my children to be concerned about how I am doing. They are delightful children. I’ll always think of them as my young children even as they have grown into adulthood.”
After a few moments, Mary got up and poured the three of us tea and brought us sugar.
“How do you like living in the mountains without nearby neighbors, and have you ever felt lonely.”
“I love living here. This is my home. Oh, heavens, no, I have my friends who visit with me frequently.”
Again my assistant and I shared a curious glance.
“After we finish our tea, I would like to show you my pride and joy, my garden.”
I can see why she loved the garden; the landscaped garden was so peaceful and beautiful with a variety of plants and small trees. Every detail was impeccable.
Almost as soon as we sat in the three comfortable lounge chairs, the birds arrived. During the following two hours, these included Steller’s Jays, Scrub Jays, California Thrashers, woodpeckers, Mountain Bluebirds, Dark-eyed Juncos, nuthatches, and Northern Flickers. The tranquil melody of songs was inspiring.
“I don’t see any birdfeeders.”
“Oh dear, I never feed the birds as I know they have plenty of food provided by nature.”
As we enjoyed the beautiful garden, more birds came to replace the previous ones. From the interactions of Mary and the birds, it became evident that she did not need to feed them to encourage their visits.
“If you excuse me for a moment, I want to welcome my bird friends.”
With that, Mary walked around the garden, addressing each bird who seemed intently on connecting with her. It was clear that there is some communication between her and each bird. When she called to the birds, they arrived singing and responding to her softly communicating with each one.
“Is there is something else I can get for you?”
I looked at my assistant, and she shook her head no, and I said that there wasn’t anything else that she could do for us.
I asked if there was anything we could do for her since she did live alone. She said, not really. She thoughtfully mentioned that once in a while, she had become rather forgetful about things like a tea kettle boiling over, and occasionally why wondering why she walked into a room until a few minutes later, she’d remembered why.
After several questions about her living conditions that I asked as unintrusively as possible, she shared about her early life and her love for her children. She had been widowed for several years.
It was true that she was becoming forgetful, and I believed Mary required help to make sure she was more careful about things like not letting her water boil over on the stove. Also, I thought someone to help her shop, provide light housekeeping, and keeping a nurturing eye on her would be necessary. Although she was fiercely independent most of her life, Mary felt that her children would be relieved with her receiving a visiting caretaker.
On my recommendation, she remained in her home with a visiting caretaker. I believe that Mary flourished rather than forced to live in a restricted environment. I’m confident that the birds also benefited.