Helen was eighty-seven when she was enrolled in hospice with dementia. Before visiting Helen in the nursing home I called her grandson, Josh, for information about Helen, about her life; some stories, some memories that I could use to connect with Helen when I visited her. Josh reminisced; “Us grandkids always called her Nonie. She worked at clothing stores, but I think the only reason she worked was so she could buy things for us kids. She always bought us grandkids what we wanted. We would go to Nonie and she would give us the money for those one-hundred-dollar Nikes. And she collected that blue glass; and every time a grandchild was born she would buy a blue glass bluebird. And I remember the cookie jar at her house; I remember her making cinnamon rolls and no-bake cookies when dad and I visited; because she knew that dad liked them. And she is the one who got me drinking tea. She was the glue that held the family together. After my grandpa retired they traveled the world and someone bought them a globe and they put pins in all the places they’d been. And ask her how my aunt got her nickname, “Toot” or “Tootsie”.”
I’ve discovered that one of my missions as a hospice Social Worker, working with people with dementia, is to explore and uncover what remains; much like a person who returns to their house after a fire and searches through the ashes and rubble. And my goal is to pull out memories so the person can enjoy them all over again; that they might enjoy the moment. After all, isn’t the moment the only thing we have for sure in this world?
So I used Josh’s information to strike up conversations with Helen. And I’m amazed and inspired by the gems I discovered buried in the heart and mind of Helen. Here’s Helen: “My husband and I could have had a nicer house. When my husband came back from the Navy he said, ‘there’s a whole wide world out there besides what’s on Dry Run!’ So we spent our money on things we liked to do, on traveling. Loren, do things for other people but do things for your family too. It’s important to do things with your partner; then later you can sit down over a cup of coffee and say, ‘Remember when’. After all, all you’re left with are your memories, but even they come and go sometimes; and you need someone to remind you of them…You can even forget who you are sometimes. The mind is a marvelous thing. We have so many memories stored inside; but it takes someone else to come along and draw them out of you. …You brought up things I haven’t thought about for years and hopefully when you come back you’ll draw out even more. We ignite something in each other, don’t we? Books are like that too. People write down a story, a memory or a thought, an idea that ignites something in others… I get a little down sometimes, but I’m only human. People who get out and socialize do better than loners; I’ve noticed that…It helps just to know someone cares…When you say something good you plant a seed that can grow into something tremendous…Every rung of life has its good things; it’s all in how you face them. I feel like I might be on that last rung; but I’d like to stay around for a while longer…I’d like to be able to walk on my own again; but some goals you achieve and some you don’t achieve; that’s just how life is; but it’s still my goal… But, whether He takes me quickly or if I linger, I know that He’s is a gracious God and that He will be with me every step of the way…and we all may be just one step away from dying; but Loren, that isn’t going to be a bad thing; because I know where I’m going.”
One of Helen’s sons, Joe, is a licensed psychologist. In my opinion, Joe is an excellent psychologist; but I’ve suggested to Helen on several occasions, “Joe may have the education and the degrees; but you’re a natural!” Helen has ignited something in me; and I hope her words will ignite something in you.
“…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…” (Hebrews 10:24 – 25, NASB)
“A plan in the heart of a man is like deep water, but a man of understanding draws it out.” (Proverbs 20:5, NASB)
Loren Hardin is a hospice social worker at Southern Ohio Medical Center and can be reached at email@example.com or at 740-356-2525