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Dementia and the art of little fibs

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.  

By Bill Herr

My aunt lived in a nursing home in a nearby city.  I have great memories of my aunt and uncle.  At family gatherings in their home, the younger ones played games and the older ones played cards.  My aunt had been active in social organizations. My uncle had a good job and always had a cigar in his mouth when they played cards. He had passed years before when I went to visit my aunt a nursing home.  

When I visit someone I always bring up past events in that person’s life in the conversation.  When I mentioned my uncle’s name, my aunt, who now had dementia, asked me where he was. I said, “He is in heaven, you remember he died a few years back.”  That was the wrong thing for me to say. My aunt cried and said, “Why didn’t someone tell me?”  She was angry. 

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Veterans' stories

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.  

By Bill Herr

There was one group of residents in the nursing home that had something in common–the veterans. Each had a story to tell. Here are three stories they told me.    

An Air Force veteran was in charge of the radio on a B-17. On a mission his plane was shot up badly and was flying back to the base. Two enemy planes approached from the opposite direction and passed on the sides. They turned around and came up behind the B-17. The resident said he made his peace with God. It turned out the planes were piloted by friendly Swedish pilots that escorted the B-17 safely back to the base.

An Army veteran was in a body of American soldiers that marched through what appeared to be a deserted German village. At the edge of the village they looked back and saw a German soldier waving a white flag where they had just been. The resident was the only soldier that could speak German so the commanding officer asked him to go back and speak to the German soldier.

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"You know me!"

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.

By Bill Herr

I always said there are four things that determine who we are and who we are becoming. They are the people we’ve known and loved, the experiences we have had, the suffering we have known, and the spiritual growth that is taking place in us. As chaplain I was always responsible for the last one, helping with worship services, leading Bible studies and visiting with residents and praying for them. 

When a resident died, we would conduct a special memorial service for that person, inviting staff, family members, and residents to attend. I would share about the resident’s life and invite anyone attending the service to share. These services were special and brought closure to those that attended. Our residents became a second family to us and we grieved their loss.

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Serving congregation members in a nursing home

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.

By Bill Herr

This article is written especially for preachers. I’m certain that one responsibility of a pastor is to bring spiritual nourishment to every member of the congregation. Providing this means the pastor is responsible not only to those that attend worship services, but also to church members that are not able to leave their homes due to aging or health issues, and also to members residing in elderly care institutions.

My uncle lived in a nursing home in his later years.  He was a veteran of WWII, a father of four fine kids, a good man who was not given to talking much. I used to visit him on Sunday afternoons and we would watch NFL football games together. He had been shot by a sniper in the Philippines during the war and came home to recover in a Veterans’ hospital. He was given drugs and became addicted to them. Being divorced and not having a home, his brother, my father, invited him to live with us. He helped us farm and became clean from the addiction.  

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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.  

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The kindest acts

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

Some of the kindest acts I have ever witnessed occurred when residents in nursing homes did acts of love and kindness toward fellow residents. One example was an exchange between Harry and Jim. Harry was formerly a farmer.  He had several strokes and was paralyzed on the left side. In his wheelchair he was bent over toward that side and his arm dangled lifelessly down, his hand nearly touching the floor. He couldn’t talk, but his eyes were clear and he could focus on you when you looked at him. He came to our meetings but I never was sure if he understood the discussions.  

One summer my wife and I and our kids had just made a field of alfalfa hay. I love the sweet smell of alfalfa hay. I decided to take a leaf of it to the nursing home the next week. Many of the men residents had been raised on farms and I thought the smell of fresh-made hay would stir memories. 

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