Sharon Murphy, who died in Halifax at age 74 on 2 March, was an exceptional woman. Born with a rare genetic disease that stunted her growth (among other problems), she was the only girl and the youngest child of poor parents in St John’s NF. Several of her brothers became professionals and received praise and respect. Sharon won a scholarship to UBC, where she completed a Master’s degree in Social Work. For a time she worked and lived in Vancouver but when her mother became ill, Sharon felt she had to come back to the east coast to care for her. She returned to a lesser job than her qualifications merited, but it was the only job she could get – in Amherst, NS. She lived there more than 15 years, and took care of her mother until her death. Sharon said she regretted living in a small town, where she knew that social activism was often frowned upon.
When she finally was able to move to Halifax, Sharon’s health had become more precarious. She believed in God and a socially-committed Catholic church. She also believed in social justice, Palestinian human rights, and trade unions. Some people on the left in Halifax made fun of her due to her age and tiny stature, her pious enthusiasm and her Christian perspective on social justice. She volunteered twice a week with a sandwich lunch program for the poor at Saint Mary’s Cathedral Basilica.
The Basilica sponsored a yearly dinner to celebrate volunteers in the community. On one occasion Sharon forget to apply for a ticket. She was very upset, and tearful. I remember having to call the priest in charge of the dinner, and asking — as a special favour — for her to have a ticket. I was willing to pay for it myself. The priest flatly refused. I noticed that few in authority went out of their way to help Sharon.
When she was 66 years old, she enrolled at Dalhousie University to take a pre-law course. She wanted to become a lawyer; she thought it would earn her some respect – as it had for her brother. But her a heart condition and diabetes, made it hard for her to regularly attend classes, so she gave up on the dream.
About three years ago, Sharon’s doctors urged her to move into a care facility. She moved from her apartment to Northwood in Halifax. A while later, with the help of someone at the church, I tracked her to a new residence at the Berkeley in the south end of Halifax. When I tried to visit her at the Berkeley on Valentine’s Day last month, I was told she had moved but they wouldn’t tell me where. The panic around Covid made it all the harder to find her and visit her in person.
Where was Sharon?
I started phoning through long-term care places, and I found out she was at Northwood. Due to Covid rules imposed on nursing homes, I made an appointment to see her on Feb. 23. I brought flowers. When I got to Northwood for my appointment at 11.20 am, her nurse told me she was too sick to come downstairs to meet me. As I was not a designated care giver, I was not allowed to visit her in her room. Instead we ended up having a stilted chat on an ipad – Sharon in bed on an ipad, and me on one in the visitors’ room. She didn’t really know who I was. She perked up a bit when I talked about advocacy for Palestinians. The nurse cajoled her to respond, but she seemed to drift off. The nurse reminded me Sharon and I could have a video chat again, any time.
In an email to Northwood’s CEO Janet Simm on Feb. 26, I asked to get in touch with Sharon’s designated care giver—so I could find out more about her health condition and my ability to visit her. Simm wrote back that she would give my contact information to Sharon’s designated care giver in the hope we could connect. I heard nothing. In fact no one contacted me about Sharon. On 2 March, I wrote two emails to Simm, pleading for a phone contact for the care giver, and I also wrote: “It’s now that Sharon and others need outside contact.”
I couldn’t visit Sharon, because she was dead
How foolish I was. No one told me that Sharon had been dead for two days by this time.
Indeed on 2 March, in response to my email, CEO Simm wrote back “We have spoken to the Designated Care Giver. I am so sorry to hear that they have not reached out.”
But Sharon was already DEAD as of 28 Feb. I had to wait for the obituary, the official version, to learn that she had died. What seems to count for Northwood – or any institution — is to preserve the protocols. Risk management? Do organizational protocols outweigh compassion?
In their defence, Northwood will say it is exceptional times – Covid restrictions, overworked staff, a heavy workload — to name a few. But it is in exceptional times that older people and those who live in care facilities need their friends from the wider community. They need the outside world to come to them; they need the stimulation and the attention. And we need them for us to remain human.
(Below: clockwise from top left corner– photo of Basilica in Halifax with manse beside it photo credit atlantic.ctvnews.ca; Northwood, largest long term care home in NS, more than 400 beds; street sign for the “longest shopping street east of Montreal”– a street that also has panhandlers on every corner; a young woman sits on her patch at Spring Garden Rd and Birmingham St; photo of the Berkeley residence in south-end Halifax.)
Bitterness is mixed with my grief. There is no memorial service or funeral– partly because of Covid and partly because Sharon didn’t want it. So what remains? A Distinguish Service Award given by the Canadian Association of Society Workers (CASW); her Courage to Give Back Award from Family SOS; her dedication for having chaired the Amherst Poverty Action Committee for 15 years; her contributions to the Community Coalition to End Poverty in NS; her membership on the Canadian Council on Persons with Disabilities; her Board membership of the Affordable Housing Association of NS and on the Basic Income Canada Network. There was also this article she wrote which appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald about the rise of poverty among seniors, occasional op-eds in the Herald and letters to the editor. A life of dedication and conviction ended without fanfare, and sadly– alone.
Featured painting: The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet, 1857-59 (French). To learn more about The Angelus, read here.