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Curses and prayer

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

Early in my time as chaplain I went into the room of a new lady resident.  I did not know that she had dementia.  As soon as she saw me, she began cursing me.  I tried to introduce myself but she continued cursing.  After a few uncomfortable moments, I excused myself and left the room.  

In the following days, I observed that her husband visited her every day.  She would sit up and he would sit beside her and gently massage the back of her neck and shoulders. One day I entered her room and she was crying softly.  I asked her what was the matter and she said, “I miss my husband.” I asked her if I could pray for her. She nodded and I prayed specifically that her husband would soon be there to see her. When I finished I looked at the doorway and there stood her husband. He had just arrived.  

They were a loving couple and he was her angel. When she died I heard that after the funeral, her husband had gone to eat in the reception room at the church. He died suddenly. I thought that maybe he willed himself to die so that he would be with his wife in heaven, where she would not be alone. I learned from that couple love and kindness brings light into darkness for a person with dementia.

The staff at the nursing home was composed of many deeply caring individuals.  One that stood out was Susie. She worked in the unit where some of the residents with dementia lived. The unit was my favorite place at at the nursing home. I loved the residents. I found that they were genuine, sincere, had a sense of humor, and liked when you visited with them. They all came to Bible study and appreciated prayer.

Susie grew close to the residents in the unit, and especially to one resident named Tonya. After Tonya died, Susie told me that when she knew Tonya was dying, she stayed after her shift to read scripture from the Bible to Tonya. In the late hours, Susie thought Tonya had fallen asleep. She closed her Bible and prepared to leave the room. When she stood up, she suddenly heard Tonya cry out, “Keep reading! Keep reading!”  

 I learned from this and from other similar instances that reading scripture and praying for residents had a powerful, positive affect on them. Visitors can take along a Bible and, after visiting with residents, ask them if they can read scripture and pray (if they feel comfortable doing that). In 24 years as chaplain I only had one person say no to my offer. The most powerful force in the world is prayer.