Originally published in the February 1982 issue of Senior Edition newspaper
I did not know Clinton McKelvey, 92, who died from exposure on the rooftop of Montclair Manor nursing home (formerly Life Care Center) on January 3. The Denver Post described his as “a frail, senile 92-year-old man” under a page one headline laden with pathos and innuendo, declaring: “Man Goes Silently to a Lonely Death.” A photo of McKelvey, depicting a thin old man with sad eyes, grim expression, wearing a hat and overcoat, accompanies the story. The cutline notes that the photo was taken as he attended a Christmas party last year.”
The story continues: “McKelvey, who was 5 feet 5-1/2 inches tall and weighed 143 pounds, inched unnoticed down 125 feet of hallway, where a registered nurse and three aides were on duty, to an open exit door that led to a stairway to the building’s roof and four other floors.
“Then, in what must have been an exhausting effort, McKelvey balanced his metal walker on the 28 gray concrete steps and climbed to a door leading to the roof.”
The door leading to the roof was not locked; the deadbolt was broken and a repairman had wired the door shut to prevent residents from going on to the roof. Did this deter the “frail and senile” McKelvey? Not for long. McKelvey picked apart the wiring, and, wearing “cotton pants, a cotton shirt, sneakers and a cap,” went up on to the roof. And froze to death.
To swallow this story whole, we have to believe that McKelvey, having negotiated a rather arduous route to the rooftop exit, and having picked apart the wiring which secured the door, did not have the presence of mind to come back in out of the cold. The unstated theme implicit in the Post’s unfortunate presentation of McKelvey’s demise is rather plain: What else could you expect from a frail, senile old man?
Incredibly, the story goes on to absolve the nursing home of any complicity in McKelvey’s death. The home “was in no way negligent in McKelvey’s death,” Dr. Pat Vanderleest, a Colorado Department of Health nursing home specialist, concluded.
Dr. Vanderleest meant, of course, that Montclair Manor adequately observed the appropriate regulations. And Clinton McKelvey died anyway. Nor were the regulations lacking. The only other way to deal with “people who are disoriented and confused,” Vanderleest said, “is to tie them down. We don’t agree with that at all. That would be an infringement on their rights and their dignity.”
There you have it. We are all neatly absolved. Being frail and senile, Clinton McKelvey was certainly not responsible for himself. Following regulations prescribed by the State of Colorado, Montclair Manor cannot be implicated. Nor can the health department, which prescribes regulations consistent with the “rights and dignity” of nursing home residents, be held accountable.
By extension, perhaps we also should absolve The Denver Post for succumbing to the stereotype of advanced age as a condition of helplessness…as if Clinton McKelvey could not have intended to die.
Whatever Clinton McKelvey was up to on his final day, he went about it methodically, with determination, and a clear sense of what he was about. According to the Post story, McKelvey eluded four nursing home staff; inching along in his walker he covered the distance of half a football field, climbed 28 concrete steps, and broke through a secured exit. It is reasonable to suppose that having accomplished all this, he was incapable of returning through the open exit door to the security and warmth of Montclair Manor?
Imagine, just for a moment, that Clinton McKelvey wanted to die. It’s not hard to imagine. At one time or another each of us entertains the notion. Why? Because we no longer have the sense that it matters to anyone else, least of all to ourselves, whether or not we stick around.
Now if Clinton McKelvey did want to die, the least we could say about his wanting to die is that nobody noticed. Montclair Manor did not notice. The Health Department did not notice. The Denver Post did not notice.
Nobody noticed. So, Clinton McKelvey did what people who want to die do when nobody notices. He died.
The least we can do to honor Clinton McKelvey is to notice his intention to die in the circumstances surrounding his death. And to notice that nobody noticed. And to notice that nobody even noticed after he died.