Category Archives: aging

When Someone is Dying

Lately, I have talked with more than a few people about how they feel when they sit with someone who is dying. Although it is not easy for most of us to talk with someone whose death is near, I believe it is invaluable to interact with a person who is dying in a way that helps to maintain their dignity while offering them comfort. When we communicate in a way that shows we care and value the person, we send the message that their life was, is, and will always be  important to us. This reinforces the most basic caring and human connection.

So, if you are in the position of visiting someone who is dying, try be “present.” I believe as a visitor, our purpose is to be comforting, concerned, calming, empathetic.  Be there as a listener if the person wants to talk. If you are not sure — they may be tired or not in the mood to talk — simply ask, “Do you feel like talking?”  As death gets nearer, our value as a visitor is to be present, providing comfort, and reassuring our loved one with soothing words and actions that help maintain their comfort and dignity.

Simple things can make a big difference. Try to sit so you can be at the person’s eye level, even if their eyes are closed.  You can sit on the edge of the bed or pull up a chair.  Everyone will die.  It is just not yet your turn. When we are on the person’s physical level, we reinforce this fact non verbally.

If the person wants to talk, be as good a listener as you can. Avoid interrupting or finishing their sentences. Just attend; with sensitivity, interest, and an open heart. Respect silence. Thoughts and feelings may need time to form or maybe the person has said all that they need to say and don’t want to go further.

If the person you are with talks about something that is uncomfortable for you, silently recognize your own feelings, but don’t change the subject. Clearly, this person wants to talk about whatever it is. You can say “it is tough for me to talk about these things” but you can still convey that you are there for them. Listen with your total being.  Unless you are specifically asked for your advice, don’t offer any. You can be there for them, responding by giving verbal, physical and emotional feedback, as they think things through. Sometimes words can be helpful, at other times, we need to respect a silent interlude. Not everyone who is dying wants to talk about dying. The quality of a person’s life is very important and it’s helpful to remember that we are visiting them while they are alive!

In my experience when visiting people who are close to death, I have learned that it can be kind and truly heart opening to remember moments we had together and share stories, and experiences. I like to remind the person of how they  touched my life and to specifically share the impact they had (or have) on me; specifically, my thinking, my approach to the world, or to other people. When I am able to do this, I realize that I am validating our relationship. I am reminding them and myself that it was, is, and will continue to be meaningful and fulfilling.  Over the years I have learned that tears of joy and sorrow mix freely. Remembering times when we laughed together helps a lot. I want them to know the many ways they made a difference. Who knows? It may be my words that help someone experience closure in some way.

To me, it is essential that the person I am with feel comforted, “held” in an emotional and spiritual way, so they do not feel alone.  It also helps to tell the person that I love them, and will miss them.

Feeling a bit “off”

It seems that wherever I go, people are coughing.  Tis the season.

At a recent doctor’s visit I was greeted by a delightful receptionist who had a terrible cough.  I felt so bad for her, especially since she was greeting sick people and she had clearly joined the ranks of those who feel awful.  Fortunately, for her and for everyone else, she was consistently sanitizing her hands.

Ever think about how much a “coughing fit” takes out of you?  Your eyes water, it’s hard to catch a breath, and your whole body feels as though it has been run over by a truck.

And just when you find a calm moment, the pre-cough tickle returns and there you go again.

Yes, grandma’s recipe for lemon-ginger-honey tea soothes, especially when sipped while snug under an afghan.  But most of the time the coughing masses are coughing while trying to function in their lives!

Just think of what it’s like being overcome while driving.  Or sitting on a crowded bus.  Or walking to work.  Or giving a presentation.  Or helping a customer.  Or preparing dinner.  Or taking care of the kids.

As we enter the holiday season, in close proximity to people who are sick and well, we all need to take extra care of ourselves to try to prevent getting sick and at the same time, offer the person who is overcome by a coughing fit that you feel for them.

I am coming up to the 20th anniversary of my beloved father, Jerry Atkins’s death.  Born in 1921, he died in 1994.  He had Alzheimer’s Disease for about 12 years prior to his death. He was younger than I am now when he became ill.

My father’s Alzheimer’s changed my life.  It changed the way I see myself, the world, and everyone in it.  During the time that he was ill, I experienced some of the oddest, most wonderful experiences with him when I “went down the rabbit hole.” I did this so I could be with him “in his world.”  When he “saw” people with knives about to attack him, rather than trying to repeatedly reassure him that nobody was threatening him, I raised an imaginary weapon, and with intense fury, stabbed the air hard…assuring my scared father that “I got them!”
His whole demeanor changed within moments; until we would repeat this charade (which I believe was NOT a charade because it was TOTALLY REAL to him.)  He calmed down and felt safe.  This tactic of falling down the rabbit hole worked!

Years into the Alzheimer’s. when my father could no longer have a conversation, he heard his favorite prayer melody. Then, he would immediately sing every word, on tune, loud and clear; so obviously filled with emotion, that tears would stream down his cheeks.

After years of myriad “rabbit hole” experiences with my dad, I continue to wonder what a person who has Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) thinks about.  I question what the world looks, sounds, and feels like to them.

Once I understood that it did not make sense to try to convince my dad, right after he ate, that he probably was not still hungry, even though he said that he was hungry, things changed…I changed.  Why not just accept that he did not remember that we had just had lunch and agree with him?  It seemed easy enough to say, “Sure Dad, sounds good.  We’ll eat something delicious.  Maybe some grilled cheese and tomato.  You love grilled cheese and tomato.” Needless to say, that conversation would induce a smile (and a little lip smacking.)  Till 2 minutes later, when we would have it again.  Maybe this time I would suggest tuna on rye! Then, after another minute or two, same thing, only this time I suggested egg salad.  I went through all of his favorite sandwiches, which, triggered in me, all of the fun lunches we had…picnics, diner counters, you name it…so there were many pluses for both of us with this approach.

When the minds of the people we love direct them differently from our own minds, we need to change the way we relate and talk to them.  What they tell us is their truth.  Their reality.  They are not making it up.  It reflects the way they see the world.

Because they cannot hold onto the response to the question you just answered for them, they will ask the same question.  Again and again.  And again and again.  And again and again.  If we get upset, they will too.  They will pick up on our frustration, disappointment, and anger but they won’t have a clue why we are behaving the way we are.  As we wonder what is wrong with them; why are they so forgetful?  I question whether they wonder what is wrong with us?  Why are we so angry?

Both of us are living in our own realities with our own truths.  And for the most part, we do not understand the other person’s reality or truths at all.

What is easy for us to remember is impossible for the person with Alzheimer’s to recall.  They are not withholding information or being difficult.  The information is just not there.  They are speaking to us from their world and it makes sense to them.  If you don’t have any recollection, no stored memory of what you just said, why wouldn’t you say it?  You have no idea you are repeating yourself.  You have no idea you don’t remember.

Falling down the rabbit hole is the first step in accepting and adapting to the world my father lived in till he died.  I came as close as I could even though I could not see it, live it, hear it, or experience it as he did.  I just knew that I did not want him to be alone.

How to do it?  Forget about being right.  Forget about showing the person the “true” reality. Yours is not within their reach.  Theirs is their true reality.

Not just entering but embracing the world that my father lived in made it possible for us to have amazing moments together.  Often, when other people saw us and heard us, I am sure they thought we were both rather crazy.  At some point, I don’t remember when, it could have been when we were tap dancing along main street, laughing our heads off, that I realized I didn’t care what anyone else thought.  I only cared about my dad feeling safe and happy.  When we laughed, I felt that together, we scored a home run.  I was happy.

I had a choice.  Be positive or be negative.  Until my father died, he was able to feel a full and rich emotional life.  How did I know this?  I observed him.  I noticed when he was frightened, when he was tired, when he was annoyed, when he was confused.  I noticed when something startled him…and when he looked pleased.  It became important to him and by extension to me, to join him in a peaceful environment, without interruptions, loud noises or sudden movements.  My father flourished when we sat or walked outdoors, listening to the breeze, watching the birds, singing songs, recalling happy memories.  Even when it was I, telling the stories that he told me when I was young, he seemed to listen…or not…but he appeared calm.  I knew he would not choose to be in the condition he was in, in this different reality, but he did not have a choice.  The only one with a choice was me.  And I chose to enter his world.