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Nursing home chaplain: John’s story before dementia

Columnist Bill Herr taught high school mathematics and science for 32 years before serving as a volunteer and then as a staff chaplain at two nursing homes. In this series of articles, he writes about his experiences with elderly residents. He does not use the residents’ real names.

By Bill Herr

In this series of articles, most of the experiences I relate involved nursing home residents experiencing some degree of dementia. The purpose is to show others ways to make their visits with such individuals as pleasant as possible.

There are about 15,000 nursing homes and 29,000 assisted living facilities in the United States, housing 2.1 million residents. One third of all Americans who die in a given year spend all or part their last six months in a senior care home. Nearly 80% of nursing home residents receive fewer than one outside visitor per month. Loneliness, hopelessness, loss of dignity and a lack of real purpose in living at an advanced age are among the primary emotional and spiritual issues that residents feel.  

Nursing home residents are blessed when they receive visitors. I met a new resident, John, who was outgoing, friendly and liked to talk.  He had a plaque on the wall of his room that was given to honor him when he retired as fire chief in his local community.

John attended every Bible study on his floor and sometimes participated in the discussion. He came to Sunday worship in the chapel and attended most other group activities. As time passed, John developed dementia and eventually had a severe form of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease. He spoke less and less as it took hold of him. He still came to Bible study but no longer participated.  

One day a young fellow that knew John well came to visit him. I introduced myself and the friend told me all he knew about John’s life. Besides being a firefighter, John was an electrician and had a fix-it business for small motors in his basement. He was loved and respected by his family and all the people that knew him. His son had also become a firefighter.  John had told me that when he first came to the nursing home and he was proud that his son followed in his footsteps.

While John’s friend told me about him, I watched John’s face. He smiled, his face lit up in pride, you could tell he understood what his friend was saying.  It was a blessing that his friend helped John feel better simply by reminding John of his fruitfulness in his life and telling others about it. Telling residents in a nursing home about the accomplishments and good things in their lives makes them feel valued. Even persons with dementia may benefit. We never know how much they understand when we talk about them, even if they don’t respond physically.  

One of the highest callings in life is to make people feel better.  A visit to a resident from a family member or a friend or even a stranger almost certainly brings that about. Is there someone you know that lives in a nursing home who would be encouraged by your visit?          


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