What would you do if you had less than five months to live?

That’s how long my elderly neighbor has to live – less than five months. She won’t celebrate Christmas this year. OK, so, I am being very blunt today and a tad bit cynical but if you are my facebook friend, you know what kind of a week I had. I don’t mean to start the weekend with this grim thought but let me tell you a little background on this story. And yes, this has something to do with you too and later, I’ll tell you what I am doing to prevent me from having to answer this question.

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Remember my harrowing power outage experience back in March when NY was hit with a brutal Noreaster? The elderly lady, Jean, whom I helped during that ordeal (I checked on her, brought her coffee, and eventually drove her to a nearby hotel to spend the second night without power) lives across the street from me. She has never been married so she has no kids or a partner. She worked for AT & T all her life and lives alone on its pension. She bought the house – oh, about fourteen years ago – with intention of living out her last glorious years in it. She doesn’t have friends who visit her. She doesn’t go out much – just to the grocery store, post office, and doctors’ offices. She let her neighbors know that she does not like other people to worry about her or ‘take care’ of her or to attend to her, less-than-spectacular, garden. Jean once told my mom, who lives next door to me, to pull out the flowers that my mom planted on what she thought was the town’s land but on her property. My mom promptly moved the flowers, feeling a bit foolish.

So then, why did I help such an anti-social, cranky old lady?

Because I think deep inside, she wants to be around people. She was always nice to my kids and me. Anti-social or not, she gave out huge bars of Hershey Chocolates on Halloween – the original kind, without nuts or caramels. Just plain good old Hershey bar. And although my kids didn’t really LOVE chocolate, they loved receiving those vintage looking bars wrapped in plain brown paper. There’s something to be said about a loner who takes the time to buy chocolates for trick or treaters. She could have easily not open the door – like some people in my neighborhood – or leave the chocolates in a basket on her front porch so that she doesn’t have to open the door. But she didn’t. She always handed them out, in person. And, yes, she was a loner with no one to check on her but when the power went out, she knew she had to accept my help. When she didn’t resist, I was more compelled to help her and to make sure she was safe.

And now, she is dying…without anyone noticing her absence.

But that’s not the whole story. Another neighbor, Harold, who lives behind me, informed my dad that Jean died on Wednesday. How could that be? According to my mom, she took out the garbage on Tuesday (we can always tell when garbage and recycling days are by looking at her garbage can and recycling bin on her driveway.) and took in her newspaper. In fact, my mom saw her drive away on Tuesday morning! When my mom told me this sad news, I imagined her empty house, on what would be the day of her funeral…with hardly anyone going in and out, paying respect. Presence of somber people would have made even a sad occasion like a funeral, a happy occasion. But that  wouldn’t be at her funeral.

Then, the real shock came as Harold recanted his story and said that she didn’t die but is hospitalized.  Whoever called from the doctor’s office made a mistake. Seriously. Can’t make this stuff up.

So my mom and I visited her at the hospital yesterday. She is not in pain but is very frail and weak. Shockingly, lying in a hospital bed, she looked even smaller than she is, only skin and bones are left on her body. How could she have deteriorated so quickly since I saw her last? I was actually concerned about her during the unremitting heatwave in June. I wondered if she had the thermostat set at a reasonable setting. I wondered if at the fear of high energy bill that she would shut off her air conditioning, making her vulnerable to heat related problems. Young people can handle the heat but elderly cannot. So I was concerned. But I saw that she was coming out to put out the garbage and take in her daily newspaper so I knew she was OK. It’s funny – you notice mundane habits like that, as a neighbor. It was my only way of keeping an eye on her without pestering her.

Anyway, Jean was almost in tears when she saw us in her hospital room. It took her a minute to realize the presence of people she recognized. I’m sure there aren’t too many in her life, never mind, even to visit her in a hospital. Almost immediately, she blurted out, “They say, I wouldn’t last to Christmas.” I choked. Ignoring what she just said, like an idiot, “How are you feeling? Did  you just have lunch?” (She had half empty food containers on a food tray in front of her.) Duh.

Through her dark hollow eyes, I can tell she was planning the next few months she has left. She talked about installing an elevator chair that goes up the railing to her second floor bedroom. She gave me the combination to her garage, just in case I needed access to her house. I didn’t expect her to give me access to her house, her private sanctuary! She then, told me, she doesn’t want chemo or radiation for her cancer that has metastasized to her lungs, ovaries, and intestines. She said she is eighty two year old and lived  a good life. No need for treatment. She thanked us over and over again for visiting and said, get this, “I don’t feel so alone anymore.” That just about got to me right ‘there’ and then. I had to turn away. Gosh that old hag. Why did she do that to me. Now, I’m gonna have to take care of her!

We came home, feeling, not great that we did a good deed, but sad. I know I shouldn’t be because she said she lived a good life but I couldn’t help wondering, how do you live the rest of your days when you know you only have five months? Where do you begin? I know it sounds like a cliche but have you really thought about it? What would you ‘do’ if you have five months to live? Unfortunately, if you’ve been told you only have five months, the chances are, like Jean, you are not that mobile. You might be frail, weak, can’t eat, and in pain. You can’t go to Machu Pichu and walk up those stairs. You can’t go to the Great Wall and walk miles on the wall. You can’t even sit for too long to last a boat ride on the Nile. And will you try to find all your contacts in your address book to talk to before you lose your voice?

I snapped out of it and thought about all the things I’d do NOW before being told I had five months to live. No, I’m not making travel plans and I’m not revising my last will and testament. But I thought about how I’d live if I only had five months to live from now on. Just this week, a report was published on social relationship and mortality. It was a fascinating study on how “the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.”* So even though I don’t smoke or drink or am fat, my mortality rate is at risk if I am not social. And this does NOT include facebook. Actually, this finding is not new. There are studies that relate Alzheimer patients and how social they are too. Most socially active people are, less chance of getting dementia. But seeing Jean lying in the hospital bed, feeling alone, being alone, made me realize how important it is to live your life surrounded by friends and family even more. Being social is something that can not be bought, planned, or to have done for you in five months. It’s something that need to be nurtured and practiced all your life.

I always joke with  my husband, “Who will show up at our funeral?” That is a true indication as to what kind of life we’ve lived. I intend to live the rest of my life surrounded by loving friends and family, regardless of what kind of past we’ve had, what kinds of words we’ve exchanged, and how infrequently we talked and saw each other. I intend to make the most out of my life by being in contact with people I trust and care about. So if I call you or text you in the next few days, don’t freak out. I’m not dying; I’m just trying to live.

After all, we all might just have less than five months to live. No one knows.

*Article on Social Relationship and Mortality

**As I was writing this, the hospital called me  (me!) to ask if I can let the equipment company into her house to deliver the necessary medical items, including a bed to be placed on the first floor, before she is discharged on Monday afternoon. Thank Goodness! I was worried about her navigating  up those stairs to her bedroom on the second floor. Apparently, she had given them my name to give them access to her house, (probably because I had the garage door combination) and to witness the paperwork that will ensue when she comes home. And she’s coming home with a 24 hour nurse who will be by her side to help her with day to day chores like cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I hope she’s a good person who won’t take advantage of her and be her companion while she tries to make the best of her remaining days. And if she let’s me, I hope to be there to help her too. I may be presumptuous but I get the feeling she will want me to.


  1. says

    Oh Karen … of course, she is going to want you and she is so lucky that you are her neighbor.

    I am not the most social person and I don’t have a lot of family so this has really made me think …

    Before my grandmother passed away she was hospitalized and the hospital made a mistake and told my grandfather she was dead, he told us and then a little later we get a phone call saying she was still alive. That is such a horrible up and down feeling.

    I don’t know what I would do if I found out I had 5 months. We really don’t know how long we have …

    Thanks for sharing this :-)

    • says

      Thanks Kim.
      I appreciate your confidence in me. While I wasn’t trying to brag about what I’ve done for her or what I will do for her, I was trying to reflect on how I’ve lived and how I would live for the rest of my life, knowing that at any moment, I can be in her position.

      Death is inevitable and out of our hands, to a degree.
      How we live – on the other hand – we have full control over.

  2. says

    I am so sorry to hear the bad news about your neighbor.

    Four years ago, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given 1-3 years to live. My father decided to fight it and the next 2.5 years were filled with bi-weekly chemo treatments. It kept him alive, but it also made him miserable. Finally, 1.5 years ago, he said “no more” and he stopped the chemo. His doctor suggested some radiation to help slow things down. And that’s where we are today, four years after the initial diagnosis. He has good days and he has bad days, but he’s still alive.

    Knowing that his time is limited, we as a family have tried to make plenty of good memories. My parents traveled to California to fulfill a particular dream of my father’s. We all visited the White House together. (We’re all history geeks.) My parents have been able to take some short, easy cruises. In short, my father is trying to live a good life, while also preparing for what is to come. Their affairs are in order, but they’re not waiting around for the end; they’re doing fun stuff and taking each day as it comes.

    So, with all that in mind, that’s how I’d live if I knew I had only five months. I’d get my affairs in order, but I’d also make as many memories as I could with my husband and children. In some respects, it would be hard, because five months is not much time and, honestly, there’s a lot of grieving that occurs after such a diagnosis.

    As for your neighbor, I can imagine that you’ll be a good friend to her in the coming months. Popping over for quick visits, bringing her flowers, baking her a small treat that she might like. Even though you haven’t been close friends for years and years, I’m guessing that she’ll appreciate these kindnesses greatly.

    • says

      Oh, I am so glad to hear about your dad. I am sure you and your family spending quality time with him has made all the difference in his prognosis. Being surrounded by family and friends really makes a difference in death rate, as the study showed. So hopefully, your family’s support will make him happy and be the miracle case and surprise all his doctors.

      And as for Jean, I am hoping that our neighbors, not just me, will show their love and support. May be that will make her remaining days more comfortable and feel not so alone. After all, we are her family.

  3. says

    Oh, honey, I’m so sorry! I’d seen some of the updates on Facebook, but reading the whole story is just heartbreaking. Good on you guys for reaching out to her!

    I totally buy the thing about social interaction staving off dementia. I think having a craft or hobby can have the same effect. When I look at the grandparents in my life, the ones who either socialize or craft are the ones who are mentally together at an advanced age.

    I wish there was something I could do for your neighbor. It sounds like company is the thing she needs the most, and you guys are doing a great thing by popping by to see her!

    • says

      Hi Becky,

      You are absolutely right about social interactions, crafts or hobby making a difference. I only wish she’d have enough strength to do some of it when she gets home. She said she used to do crossword puzzles but she didn’t even want to look at it when I asked her about it in the hospital. She was probably more concerned with going home than doing puzzles at the hospital. But when she comes home, I’ll go over and help her with crossword puzzles. That’s a great idea. Thanks!

  4. says

    Karen – hugs to you. It’s got to be hard. I remember what it was like with my dear mother-in-law – when we found out she was done with cancer treatments. (There just weren’t any left to try.)

    I think she’ll be happy that someone wants to be there for her. Bless your heart.

    Thanks for being brave enough to post this personal story. It’s not a happy story – but sometimes we need a wake up call.

    • says

      Thanks Amy.
      It seems like everyone has a similar story like this. I just happen to “verbalized” it. Death is never easy. But to be told you are dying and only have less than five months to live has to be worst. That’s what got to me. And although I hate to take advantage of someone else’s misery, Jean’s life made me look into my own life. And although my life is nothing like hers, we are alike in that, in the end, we need other people to live.

    • says

      Thanks Lisa,
      I didn’t do anything extraordinary. I know we ALL have that same capability to help those in need. If I’m in a similar predicament, I know I will get the same help from others.

      Thanks for stopping by and reading my story.

  5. says

    It’s good of you to be there for your neighbor. I watched my dad die from cancer, and it’s a terrible thing. When they first diagnosed him, it was with a kind that they said would kill him in about seven years whether he had chemo or not. Then they found a second type, and he did take chemo and he had radiation for a brain tumor, but the cancer was very aggressive. He went steadily downhill from just before Christmas until April; he waited until after my mom’s birthday, and then he asked her not to make him eat anymore. He was ready to go.

    The only good thing about a terminal illness is that it does give you time to settle your affairs, make your arrangements, talk with friends. My parents had a fabulous 50th anniversary party eight months before he died. A lot of friends and family attended. All his brothers and sisters were there for his last Christmas; even the ones who don’t normally come to the holiday events.

    If I had five months to live, I would certainly quit my job. If I couldn’t travel due to the illness (or to finances; with huge medical bills to come, could I justify leaving my husband in debt?), at least I could spend time with my cats. I could read. Watch movies that I always wanted to see. Listen to my favorite albums. I would just like to enjoy living while I could.

    • says

      Sorry to hear about your dad. It’s great that he was able to spend time with family and that they were there for him.

      I think it’s primal that people want to be with people, especially when they know they wouldn’t have chances to be around them much longer.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. says

    I am very glad to see you getting this off your chest. My heart really goes out to this woman and anyone affected. I know that doctor life predictions are pretty much a joke. My granny had cancer a few years ago and wasn’t supposed to make it a year. Three years and a random heart tumor later, she is as energetic as ever! The tumor was benign and they cracked her open and took it out. Within a week she was back on her feet. My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within a month. She never made it to chemo. They told her she would most likely pull through after her treatments.

    It’s amazing how people build walls and let them down when they really need people. I am glad she isn’t letting her pride, or anything else, get in the way. You are a saint for helping her!

    If I had 5 months? I would try to do as much as I could with the time I had left, even if that was just spending time with my family on their couches

    • says

      It just goes to tell you how unpredictable life is. That’s why we have to make the most of the present. I spent the good part of the day, getting her settled in and dealing with all the nurses, nurse’s aide and equipment delivery people. I’m glad she has the necessary equipment and personnel to help her. This will be a good ‘training’ for the inevitable …for my family….sad to say.

      • Erin from Long Island says

        Sad, yes….but good practice! Nothing can prepare them for when it is your parents or you or your husband. At least this will help expose them to it so it is not a total slap in the face when the time comes

  7. says

    I think as human beings what we crave and need the most is human contact. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t have any family around and also makes you wonder what made her the way she is. It appears from what you said about halloween that she liked interacting with kids. Who knows if she ever wanted kids,if she ever found the right man. I always have a soft spot for the elderly, I’m always interested in their stories. I like to hear them talk about their childhood, or memories they had of their adulthood, if they traveled..maybe you can have her tell you her story.

    as far as the question about being told you had 5 months to live. I think the first thing that would come to mind would be to travel, to see the world, but then the more I thought about it, i would rather be right there close to my family, also if I had any paperwork legal stuff to take care I would. Brings to mind that story…what was it called, the Last Lecture?
    ..some of his quotes. ‘We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
    …”Apologise when you screw up and focus on other people, not on yourself.”.

    AND my favorite is this….” * “Find the best in everybody. You might have to wait a long time, but people will show you their good side. Just keep waiting, it will come out. And be prepared. Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity.”……

    PS. I’m making an effort to be sociable to meet friends for coffee even when I;m lazy and would rather just stay at home, so you know what I did, I sent an email to a friend and invited them to have coffee, You did that Karen!

    sometimes we need a kick in the shin to wake us up and appreciate what we have.

    • says

      How can I forget the “Last Lecture”! I read that book and was so inspired by his courage. He was a rare breed for sure.

      You are right; we need to ‘get out’ and be with loved ones and even the no-so-loved ones now when we are alert and can have fun. And hug and tell those we love them.

      Thanks for the reminder and the quotes from the book. I do love…”Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity……”

  8. says

    Just saw this article. I’m happy that it seems as though Jean is going to let you help her out & hope that the nurse is wonderful to her. There are far too many elderly people who do not get the loving care that they should…and don’t have any family to help them when they need it. In many cases, the older generation just has too much pride.

    • says

      You are right about elderly people not receiving proper care because of their pride. They also become very stubborn, which makes matters worse. But Jean was very agreeable in letting us take care of her for her own good. She came home today and she was practically giving us the ‘right’ to do whatever we thought was necessary and was good for her. I just hope we do right by her as she wishes.

  9. SavyGran says

    Thanks for posting this. It helped. Guess I’ll trust someone with the garage code now. No heroic measures for me either. Just wish I’d gone ahead and spent the money on dream trips, instead of a new roof.