Culture At Large

Blessed are the hospice workers

David Ker

My grandmother passed away last month at a hospice in Portland, Oregon. Nanna Mary was always petite. But in the final weeks of her life she was tiny, a shrunken version of the vigorous little English fighter who had served in the Royal Women’s Army in World War II and went on to travel the world with her husband before settling on Oregon as home.

I could tell you a lot about my grandmother, but today I’d like to talk about the people who cared for her in her final days. Orderlies, nurses, nurses assistants and more were continually in and out of her room adjusting her in her bed, bathing her, feeding her. I also took part in feeding Nanna and it was almost impossible for me to be patient enough to make sure she got enough food and liquids. But on the days that I was late, I would find someone like Brian slowly feeding my Nanna and talking and humming to her even though she was too deaf to hear.

Our modern society has a lot of sophisticated ways to care for the elderly so that fast-paced adults in the prime of their life don’t have to be inconvenienced. My wife and I imagined having my grandmother move in with us for the final weeks or months of her life. It would have been impossible. She needed constant care and we are in constant motion. So, I don’t wish to condemn the system that exists but I fear that it produces a lot of people forgotten in senior centers and hospices by their own families. The marvelous thing about these places is the weekly calendar. Dancing, painting, hymn singing, church services, sports. The activities director told me that because my grandmother was so frail that she wasn’t able to dance but someone would hold her hands and move her arms back and forth to the music.

Isn’t it interesting how most of our church strategies involve targeting young people while those that most need the comfort of religion are the elderly? Again, there are many ways that care facilities try to meet these needs. And every church has at least some system of visitation for shut-ins.

In our final week together, my wife and I often took turns sitting next to my grandmother on her bed and singing her hymns. She almost certainly could not hear the words but she could feel the vibrations of our voices resonating through her bed and our touch on her hands and face. It was a sobering time but also beautiful.

My most sincere thanks go out to caregivers everywhere who minister God’s love in humble and practical ways.

If I might give a few suggestions for the rest of us who would like to reach out to the elderly, they would be these:

  1. Visit on the weekend. We found it to be the quietest time of the week.
  2. Don’t just limit your visit to one person. Sneak into other rooms and say hello.
  3. Wash your hands and then hold hands with the person you are visiting.
  4. Rub lotion on their hands or paint their fingernails if they are ladies.
  5. Thank and pray for every worker in the facility. Many of the tasks they perform are exhausting and unpleasant.

What stories do you have to tell about caregivers? And what advice would you give?

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