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Honoring a dementia patient’s life



Ask questions — then listen and learn

By Magdalena I. García | Presbyterians Today

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He was a man of few words. My visits often consisted of a monologue I carefully constructed around veiled questions, hoping he would offer up details about his life without getting agitated. But his responses were short — a few words uttered in a deep voice that got louder if he was irritated by the subject matter.

I met Robert after he moved into a nursing home. What little I knew about him I had learned from a brother who lived out of state. Robert’s background included a career in graphic arts, working with his father in a commercial printing business, a failed marriage, depression, heavy drinking and excessive smoking. Robert had lived independently until his mental state deteriorated so much that a crossing guard saw him walking down a street without shoes on a snowy day and called the paramedics. That’s how he ended up at the hospital and eventually was institutionalized.

By watching his habits, I learned that he had a sweet tooth. I also discovered that he loved classical music. Whenever I played a selection on my smartphone, he would close his eyes and hum the tune.

However, it wasn’t until the day he died that I learned Robert had been an avid painter. As I kept the vigil by his deathbed, I offered companionship to his brother on the phone. In gratitude, he emailed me pictures of paintings by Robert he had kept after clearing out his apartment: Chicago streets and an elevated-train stop, a neighbor standing in an alley — even a self-portrait. As I looked at the images, I felt sad at the lost opportunity to offer him greater meaning during his last days by engaging with him in what was clearly his favorite hobby. It was that day I vowed to stop my veiled questions, to be more assertive, more inquisitive — even at the risk of pestering — so that dementia patients, like Robert, will not be buried and forgotten while still alive.

Magdalena I. García is a hospice chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in Chicago.

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