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Dementia and dignity

Bill Herr taught high school mathematics and science for 32 years. After retiring from teaching, he began a nursing home ministry, first as a volunteer and then as a nursing home chaplain. He has written columns for the Icon on Bluffton sports history and on being a chaplain.


By Bill Herr

This is a summary of my long experiences as chaplain in a nursing home. If you have a family member or friend that is moving slowly into dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, I pray for you, as there are challenges ahead. And you should pray and ask God for help. He listens. 

It is important to tell people with dementia of the great things they did in their lives, and to do this often. If they are in a nursing home, tell the staff about those things. It is easier to care for a person if we know their background. 

Even if you don't know a person living in a nursing home, pay a visit to some residents there occasionally. It's outside our comfort zone but it will make the residents you speak to feel better. Even a smile does that. It might be the only time all day someone smiles at them. Or shake their hand, which is even better. Touch is powerful in making a person feel valued. There is no higher calling than making people feel better. I guarantee you will feel better too.

Even if a resident that has dementia doesn't respond or make eye contact, talking to that person provides a message that he or she is a part of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. 

We may never know how much they understand. Someone said we die two deaths, one when our heart stops and the other when no one speaks to us. 

And be tolerant of offensive behavior. When the beloved nun Sister Teresa, who started a group of nuns that ministered to the poor in India, bent over and put her arm under a man lying by the curb to help him up, he spat in her face. She didn't react and continued to hold him. A witness asked her how she could remain calm and loving after that, she responded, "When I saw him I saw Jesus in a distressing disguise.”

In my first year as chaplain, I was cursed, kicked in the shin, and when I spoke to one resident that had her back to me, she swung her arm around and her fist caught me in the ribs. After teaching in high school 32 years without an incident, I thought, "What am I getting into? But that never happened again and I was blessed to have many wonderful friends among residents, some of whom had dementia.

I found that residents with dementia had some things in common. They loved to see children that were visiting, they still had a sense of humor and even enjoyed friendly teasing. They loved to sing the old hymns. At Tuesday worship when we sang "In the Garden," those that had been slumbering would suddenly mouth the words of the old beloved hymn. My favorite place in the nursing home was in the unit where I simply forgot that my friends there had dementia.

The most important thing is to respect the dignity of those that live with a debilitating, lengthy illness. That should remain a priority whenever possible. What elders long for, even if they cannot express it, is to be held in high esteem as people who still matter, regardless of their circumstances. God bless family caregivers with the strength and patience and creativity to help their loved ones through difficult situations in any way they can.