Did Lorraine Bayless forfeit all claim to ordinary compassion when she moved into a popular and well-regarded Bakersfield retirement home three years ago?
On its surface, that notion would seem absurd: No one relinquishes their humanity. No one is absolved of the duty to be decent, or denied the privilege of accepting others' decency, because they've signed a residency contract. But as the debate over the galling circumstances of the 87-year-old woman's death continues to roil literally across the globe, that now seems a fair question.
Bayless died last week after falling in the dining room of Bakersfield's Glenwood Gardens retirement home. Her breathing was shallow and her pulse weak -- but she was clearly alive -- when someone called 911. A staff nurse refused to administer CPR, however -- it was against policy -- even as a Kern County Fire Department dispatcher valiantly pleaded with her to try -- or at least find someone else who would try. Bayless died a short time later at a Bakersfield hospital.
Bayless' death should not be quietly dismissed, as much as her family might like it to be. Why? Because we cannot allow a suddenly evolving standard of common civility and respect to affect the lives of other mothers, other grandmothers, other aunts and sisters, who may soon move into this phase of their lives.
Did corporate policy at Glenwood Gardens allow for simple resuscitation efforts? Who cares? Had Bayless signed a do-not-resuscitate order? Who cares? (She had apparently not signed any such directive.) This was not a case where she was hooked up to a machine that was delaying the inevitable. People help people -- just because.
If Bayless had lived in a regular apartment building and her neighbor, a nurse, had come upon her in a common area of the complex, struggling to breathe, the nurse wouldn't stop to check her lease agreement for resuscitation restrictions. What if Bayless had been choking on a piece of food? What is corporate policy on the Heimlich maneuver? For that matter, how could the retirement home's staff be sure that choking wasn't the problem? Which intervention efforts are acceptable and which are not?
Bayless' death demands more than a good, hard look in the mirror on the part of the senior living industry. It demands attention from law enforcement agencies, the regulatory agencies that license these senior living facilities and the agencies that license the caregivers who work in the industry, including nurses.
The case of Lorraine Bayless goes straight to the heart of how we treat each other -- not simply how we treat the elderly. But it has an undeniable relevance as our country's demographics change, and as we all begin to live longer. As the graying of America gradually picks up speed, and the business of caring for the elderly becomes ever-bigger business, these become increasingly urgent and difficult questions.