As I sat in the hospital room staring at my 80 something year old Grandmother, listening to the haunting sound of her breath as her lungs began to fail, I avoided looking at my exhausted mother and sort an element of distraction. I began to look around the room and shouted to my mother “What is this yellow paint on the walls!?! Who selected this hideous colour?”. she mother laughed loudly, enjoying the change of topic and classic commentary from her daughter, an Interior Designer.
The room was far from perfect with horrible dark salmon coloured vinyl flooring, leaf green doors and light dirty yellow walls, there was nothing about it that said “this is a nice place to die”. Due to the sudden rush to the hospital earlier that morning, (which was becoming a bit of an occurrence in the last year) we hadn’t brought any of Grandma’s belongings, there were no flowers or pictures; no extensive cables, equipment or beeping; the nurse rarely visited and most of our family continued their day at work. Yet something about that moment, made it seem like everything would be okay and there was strange element of comfort.
In contrast, a couple of years later we visited my partners Aunty in womens section of newly built hospital. We were told she was unwell, very unwell. She was young, 49 with two boys and weren’t really sure why she was there. The moment her family left the room, she held my and my partners hand, crying and said “I’m sorry I want be able to see your children”. A little confused, with no immediate plans for children, we said “don’t worry you’ll get better!”. A week later she was moved to palliative care where we began what seemed like the longest week of our lives.
In a modern light filled room, with new equipment, soft blue flooring and nicely painted walls she rested with a typical amount of things plugged in. We were all there for her, 12 family members filled the room, beautiful bunches of flowers, pictures and the belongings of all the family members covered the chairs. Doctors and nurses came and went every hour. A large outdoor area enabled her 50th birthday celebration hosted by over 50 of her friends who came to support the family every day that week. Yet despite the more idealistic, comforting setting, we couldn’t stop thinking what is happening? Is she dying? Why is she here? Questions we continued to ask well after her death.
Although it is largely due to the sudden unexpected loss incurred with our Aunt, I often reflect back to the contrast of experiences. As an interior designer, I am very passionate about the impact an environment has in our sense making process. Like in the room with my Grandma, a space can generate implicit conversations that develop our insights in which we understand, interpret and respond to our present situations.
The lack of fuss in the room that day of my Grandma’s death actually made it clear what was happening. We didn’t question, who or why people gave flowers, we didn’t wonder if the nurse thought things we better or worse every hour, we weren’t concerned about a particular aspect of her health, we didn’t wonder why she was in the newest, best section of the hospital; she wasn’t put on a ward that suggest ‘end of life’, we were just there with her.
So what can I take away from this? Perhaps its not about trying to replicate a homely environment in our hospitals, or trying to replicate the idealism of dying in our sleep, perhaps its about strengthening our mindfulness. Perhaps we need to create environments that correctly reflect what is and what could be. I suppose with death we all feel a lack of control over our lives, but if our environments strengthen our ability to respond better instead of striving for a sense of anaesthetic, we can make our own decisions of what is and what could be. We could generate empowerment both of the patient and their family to continue in whichever way they like.