The Old People’s Friend
April 1, 2020
Greg holding Mom’s hand on her last day; photo by Greg Hanson

As she neared her 90th birthday, my mother began telling us that, in her youth, pneumonia had been called “the old people’s friend.”

This friend took them, somewhat gently, over the hill.

“I’ve lived long enough,” she’d say. “It’s time for me to go.”

Though she had constant joint and nerve pain from a life of gardening, sewing, and writing, she was, even at 95, beloved and engaged in life. Just the same, she was ready. She was eager to go.

I think of Mom’s words now as older people (some as old as I am and some even older than my mom was) fall to Covid-19. The death they are meeting is not gentle.


During March of 2019, Mom spent eight days in an active dying process.

On the first of those days, she asked to be allowed to die. Her pain was throwing her fragile body into a tight corner on her bed, so the hospice nurse brought a syringe.

Mom reached toward the nurse with her smile. “Is this an overdose now?” she asked.

The nurse shook her head. “No, Judy, we can’t give you an overdose, but this should help ease the pain.”

She paused. She added, “I’m sorry.”

Two days later Mom begged to be allowed the dignity of going to the bathroom instead of wetting into a diaper, so we hoisted her into a sling. When the pain gripped her, she threw her body backward.

“Judy,” the nursing assistant said, “do you know what’s happening? Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Dying,” Mom replied. “I’m trying to die.”

We still had six days to go.


Last year, mid-March, we could be with Mom as she traveled that final path. It was agony. But we could be there.

This year, March of 2020, many people’s parents are on that path, but they cannot be with them. Some attempt to speak to their beloveds by phone, hoping those dear ones hear and understand. Many can’t do even that.

I reach out to them in their distress. May they discover a way through.

Our hearts wrap round those who are dying. May the path become easier for them.

Many of the sick want to recover and will. May they rejoice to find the gate of death closed to them.

There will be time, later, to return.

If any are 96, as my mother was, and if any are ready—fulfilled by life, unafraid, eager to rejoin loved ones—may they be given a somewhat peaceful way to pass.


Because antibiotics have rendered “the old people’s friend” ineffective, we have fewer available friends to help those whose time has come.

Then Covid showed up.

Covid is not kind. We look into the eyes of this formidable foe.

We Quakers have a practice of posing queries, questions without clear answers, to help us negotiate difficult terrain. Join me, if you will, in these queries.

Might those of us who are not in immediate suffering consider possible paths of dignity and compassion for when the suffering shows up? Could Covid, if it arrives for me, be convinced to allow my life to be rounded out by a good death? What powers of negotiation do I have? How can I companion those whom I love toward a gentle death when their last days come? Have we, now in days of confinement, time to ponder this?

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