December 16th, 2010
12:00 PM ET
Two days before Christmas, Ishani Kar-Purkayastha a junior doctor at an English hospital, prepares to dig through a stack of patient papers. She remembers the night:
The pre-Christmas emptying of the hospital is well underway. People want to be at home.
Instead, the young doctor is interrupted by a woman. “Doris,” who complains of aching in her shoulder. Doris has been at the hospital for three weeks.
Truth is, Doris is an incredibly healthy 82-year-old and we can’t find anything. I have no doubt it will be the same today.
Doris tells Kar-Purkayastha about her deceased husband and her two children who live abroad. They talk for a while before Kar-Purkayastha has to answer a page. She returns later that day with Doris' test results from her shoulder. Doris is fine.
When the young doctor tells her patient that she can return home, Doris shuffles.
“Doctor, she says, “there’s two days to Christmas.” I nod. She sighs, and from nowhere a tear trickles down her face.
Suddenly, she gathers up her rail thin arms and legs and looks at me with intent. “It’s just that I’m all alone and there are so many hours in the day.”
She lets out a forlorn noise that is neither laugh nor cry. “Doctor,” she asks, “can you give me a cure for loneliness?” Her courage takes my breath away.
About Doris, Kar-Purkavastha writes: There are probably thousands like her. Men and women who have lived a lot and loved a lot. Men and women who are not yet done with being ferocious and bright but for whom time now stands empty as they wait in homes full of silence; their only misunderstanding to have lived to an age when they are no longer coveted by a society addicted to youth.
Sheepishly, I insist that Doris spends her Christmas this year on the ward, and I see her mood lift. But as I steel myself for the inevitable influx of unwanted grandparents who I know will arrive, I cannot help but wonder how it is that things could have gone so badly wrong.
There are many more Dorises, Kar-Purkavastha knows - aging and alone. That loneliness can feel more painful during holidays, leading some to seek refuge inside a hospital surrounded by people who are tasked with taking care of them.
A hospital can oddly seem like a warm place during the holidays for "patients who really don't have family or a spouse, it may be a nice place to be, if you can call it that," one doctor told CNN for a story about holiday surgery.
The Lancet editors wrote in an accompanying editorial that “a visit to an older neighbour who lives alone might be just what they need to make their holiday a merry one.”
Kar-Purkayastha's essay is worth a read.
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