It is Thursday afternoon, and normally I am visiting my hospice patient, Helen, at the nursing home where she resides. Helen was the first patient I was assigned to after completing my training with a local hospice in August 2011. She was 88 years old and suffering from Dementia, which she had developed several years earlier. I have visited Helen weekly for eight months. She never knew my name, and we did not have normal conversations about our past, our likes, our dislikes or our dreams. Stringing together a sentence was complicated for her as the disease must erode the language center of the brain. But I believe that once our eyes met and she reached out to stroke my arm or hold my hand, she connected with me-physically with touch, and spiritually as one soul to another. I often sat with her while she picked at her lunch, or would walk laps with her around the halls of the home. Later, a wheelchair would become her method of transportation as a fall broke her hip and she never recovered her usual physical stamina or strength.
Helen’s health continued to decline after the fall, and the dementia worsened as well, continuing to feast on the remnants of her brain. Words became ever more elusive as she was reduced to mumblings, which could not convey her thoughts or wishes. She napped more often, and her favorite word often became, “No.” She withdrew socially as well, a fact confirmed by the staff at the home.
Helen passed away Tuesday, April 17th. During what was my last visit, I could not rouse her from her afternoon nap. I am not sure if she was medicated or just tired and weak or both. We didn’t speak, but I did stoke her arm and let her know that I was there. I was not terribly saddened by the news of her death, because I picture her in a much better place, reunited with her husband and a son who passed before her. She is once again able to speak freely and clearly, and she has lots to say.