After a few weeks of activities at the Manor, Villa, Memory Care Center and the Health Center Fr. Jacobsen gave us a new list of people to visit. The list contained names of people receiving hospice care, and therefore in the final stages of their earthly life. Judy (not real name) was on the list.
Pam and I went up to visit her room late on a Friday night. We did not know what to expect. The door was open and a very kind hospice nurse was sitting with her. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could come in for a few minutes. The nurse was very glad that we were there. We walked in and Judy was lying in bed. She was in her late nineties and had a very small frame but with a lovely head of beautiful white hair. She was curled up and obviously in a lot of pain. Pam and I sat with her and I struggled to find words to say. In so many ways I felt helpless. She was not able to respond to anything that we asked but we felt that she was aware that we were there.
We asked if we could pray for her, we held her hand and I managed to pray what felt like a clumsy prayer, but one from the heart (note to self: never leave home without a bookmarked BCP). We then said the Lord’s Prayer and at the end I swear I saw her say “Amen”.
This is where we were meant to be, helpless but present, lacking but adequate.
We said goodbye and left the room. We both felt that the time of passing was very close and went home subdued.
The next day we returned and whilst still in pain Judy clearly was in a better condition than the night before. Armed this time with both the BCP and Ministry to the Sick our prayers were more coherent. On the Sunday she was brighter still and we said one of the daily devotions with her and she responded multiple times. Judy’s time of passing is close, and we continue to visit her every time that we are at the Villas. Walking softly, being present, praying that she feels the blanket of Christ’s love as she journey’s home.
Back at the Memory Care Center, Pam and I arrived with a list of residents to visit. The list contained an interesting entry Room 123 Admiral Hyde (not actual room number or name). As we approach the room the door is open and so we knock and walk in. An elderly man is lying in bed with the television on in the background although I don’t think that he was really watching it. “Hello, my name is Richard and Fr. Jacobsen asked if we would stop by to say hello to you, this is Pam” but before I could finish the sentence the elderly man cut in “Are you from Tennessee?”, “No I’m not are you?”, “Born and raised there, where are you from?”, “I’m from the England” I responded. “Great place, been there many times” the man said. “My list says that you are an Admiral, was you in the navy?” (aside: sometimes I do ask the most stupid of questions). “Yes I was, Admiral of the fleet. Are you from Tennessee?” As I reflect I remember in all honesty doubting that this man was an Admiral of the US Navy and I was beginning to form an opinion about him.
As the conversation moved on I realized that you could hold a normal conversation for about two minutes and then everything started again with “Are you from Tennessee?” I started to look around the room for something to talk about, to create a link to. Sure enough on the far wall was a painting of a very handsome looking sailor in an officer’s uniform. I asked if it was him, and if it was ok to go across and look. As I got closer, I realized that this was a painting of a high ranking naval officer and there it was – the inscription underneath. Admiral James Hyde, USN. The painting was hanging in the corner of the room and next to it on the wall was a display of medals and pins from every one of the Admiral’s postings. He had commanded many ships, ran Pearl Harbor and was indeed an Admiral of the United States Navy.
Standing there I felt a mixture of being ashamed and very unworthy of the task that I was meant to be doing. I realized in that moment that I had fallen into the trap of doubting before believing.
Aging can have savage effects on us. It transforms us on the outside and sometimes on the inside into something that makes the former self barely recognizable. As a young upstart I think of how often have I discounted to some degree the experience, sacrifice, love, pain, joy and so much more of someone that I am in pastoral relationship with because of their age or physical condition. I need to be reminded of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant especially “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” to which I respond “I will with God’s help.” Today I pray for God’s help.
Senior care is a humbling ministry, full of richness. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to serve in this capacity. Today I made the mistake of making assumptions and being eager to judge. I pray that I have learnt from this and this will be a lesson never to be forgotten.
Admiral Hyde is a hoot. He is full of joy. Sure we keep coming back to Tennessee but in between I am in the presence of a hero.
St. Paul’s Senior Services has a complete range of facilities for seniors from Residential Living (at the Manor) through Assisted Living (at the Villas) to specialized memory care (at the Memory Care Center) and a lot more in between. My mentor and supervisor for this summer, Fr. Leigh Jacobsen, one of the chaplains at St. Paul’s, recommended a book Creating Moments of Joy by Jolene Brackey as an introduction to working with residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. I did not have a chance to read any of it before my first visit to the memory care center. Pam and I arrived at the center and saw that our names were on the daily activities list as Reflections with Pam and Richard. Taken a little back by this but eager and willing to do whatever was requested of us we asked the staff what was expected of us. We were told to go into the dining room which also doubles as the activity room and just sit and talk with any of the residents. So off we went.
All of the residents at the center have some memory issues but there is a wide range of functionality from resident to resident. With some residents I struggled to find words when the response back was confusion and at times fear. With other residents I could hold a conversation to some extent. One resident, Mary (that is not her real name) seemed to be having a good day and was quite coherent and we chatted about her sons and how she was going out to dinner with them the next day. Then, all of a sudden she looked out of the window and seemed to be focusing on some buildings across the street. “Do you see my husband over there?” she asked. “I don’t I’m afraid where is he meant to be?” I replied having no idea why her husband would be outside waiting for her. “He should be on the steps over there with his mates, you know he is always trying to organize a game of something, can’t you see him?” I couldn’t and I suspected that the husband was not real, maybe a memory but not in the present. I had no idea how to respond. It was clear that if I told her the truth she would get upset but it felt wrong to lie to her and play along with her fantasy.
When I got home that night I started to read the book that had been recommended and I couldn’t put it down. The book is split into small sections, each with little suggestions on activities and responses appropriate for interacting with people experiencing loss of memory function. A central theme of the book is that we must accept when the memory has gone and meet the person where they are. In that moment and in that location we try to create a moment of joy. Not for us, but for them.
In the case of Mary, her memory is now somewhere to a point earlier in her life. Maybe she remembers looking out of the kitchen window and seeing her husband out with his mates on the street at night. There is no harm in creating a moment of joy back at a time that for the rest of us was long ago but for Mary was now.
The next time I was at the center, Mary was all dressed up and was indeed waiting for her son to take her out. As I sat with her (she was ready three hours early and had little concept of time) she again asked me about her husband. “Yes, I think he is over there, I saw him a few minutes ago heading over to Balboa park with a bunch of guys and a football” Mary’s eyes lit up in a moment of joy. “Oh good, now I know he won’t get into too much trouble whilst I go for dinner”.
Both Pam and I have become regular visitors with Mary. I know that she loves to cook pork chops and she promises me that next time I come she will cook them for me. The knowledge of the happiness of her planning the meal is a delicious moment of joy.