My aunt died at the Fellowship surrounded by the caring she chose:
A testimonial from a Member’s family
by Suzanne Perez
We got the dreaded call and follow up texts that my dear aunt, Hilda Perez, “Tia,” had died. Some of you may wonder what that experience is like from a family member’s point of view. Sneak-peak: this is a 5-star review. Firstly, after your loved one dies, you get a call and some time to digest the news. Then, it’s time to discuss all the plans that the Member made for how they wanted their death to be handled. My brother and sister and I had stored funeral plans in a bank safe deposit box, and somewhere virtually on-line and who knows where…we were all a bit flustered. Not to worry. The Fellowship had a copy of all of Tia’s plans and intentions. The staff called the funeral home and the body was picked up within hours. The communication with the funeral home was so outstanding that original death certificates signed by Fellowship staff were available to us before the burial. They also respectfully packed her belongings and kept them safe. If any of you have gone through the death of a loved one, you know how overwhelming all these details can be. I am still overcome at how seamless this process was at the Fellowship Community. As the days of funeral preparation progressed, I came to more intimately understand that the process of death is something the Fellowship staff lives with all the time. Staff members never know if they will walk into a room and discover that someone has stopped breathing. They often hear stories about dead loved ones and early life adventures. They see the slow or fast deterioration of the Member. They get the brunt of the confused disorientation of dementia, or a sudden flash of an absolutely loving smile. They see our loved ones in a way we do not. We are not there to change their diapers, or to feed them, or to help them with knitting or taking a stroll. We are not there when they put that rose on the holiday tree as part of a community celebration. Our loved ones chose to be surrounded by a community until their death, not surrounded by family. Why choose community in your older years, and what is this community anyway? My aunt had lived alone, unmarried, her whole life until she joined the Fellowship Community. We were, frankly, shocked that she made the decision to join the Fellowship. She was still fairly independent and mobile and could have chosen other options. She walked into the Fellowship doors and it was love at first sight: the co-workers of all ages, the rambunctious children running around, the beautiful aesthetics of fresh flowers and original art instead of ubiquitous TV screens. Surely, the fresh cow’s milk, eggs and vegetables, and aromatic herbal tea were the closers. Tia was even able to speak her native Spanish language to many staff. Our reclusive aunt came alive at the Fellowship in a way we had never known. She joined the knitting circle, took movement classes, attended live music performances and lectures. On one visit, I remember hurriedly walking by the main community room with her and she stopped me. “Suzi, come here. Quick. Let’s go see what is going on,” she said with an excited conspiratorial grin. There was a study group happening and she was not going to miss a thing! Throughout the COVID pandemic, I watched with trepidation as nursing homes reported multiple cases and deaths. I prepared for the worst, knowing that the Fellowship had workers coming in and out from the surrounding community. I was amazed and relieved to get regular updates from staff members that Hilltop House remained “COVID-free.” They remain vigilant to this day. This December, I was eager to go inside the building to thank the nurses and staff in person for the care they had given my aunt. The answer to that was a hard “no.” Too much risk of unintentional exposure with Omicron. That kind of effort kept my aunt safe until her peaceful, natural death. In a conversation with a staff member, we discussed the underlying values of the Fellowship. The word “caring” was immediately used. Care is both a noun and an adjective. You provide care for a person and you are a caring person. At the Fellowship, they have both covered. The number of details to care about is enormous. Who makes sure there is enough toilet paper in storage? Who checks if the library shift is covered? If medications are renewed? What about the day to day care of getting people out of bed, meal preparation, and even feeding the animals? The list of what needs to happen for care to happen could easily overwhelm. But, it is the way this care is done, the kind and loving caring, that makes the Fellowship so outstanding. My aunt’s unique personality and life story were treasured. You could see it in the waves and hugs from staff members as she cruised through the dining hall. From independent to dependent living, from lucidity to dementia, my aunt lived and died surrounded with love and respect. Shortly before Tia’s death, a Co-worker went by with her children and they clamored around Tia to say hello. She opened her eyes and said “I love you.” These were perhaps her last intentional words. This was a woman who woke up with no one around her for much of her life and then chose a bustling, unique community experience for her last years. And, what an interesting community! Multi-generational, multi-national, full of live arts and intellectual stimulation, all while being garden and farm-based. Throw in long-time staff who serve many functions within the organization. This is where this native New Yorker felt safe and at home. She was able to experience community in a way her life and family were previously not able to provide. During her older years, our Tia was surrounded by caring and engaged people committed to providing a good life for her. At her death, we were able to concentrate on her and our grief with minimally intrusive logistics. What a gift for all of us. For Hilda Perez and my siblings, we thank you!
To make a gift to the Fellowship Community in honor of Hilda please visit fellowshipcommunity.org/donate