|Mom in her new Broda chair with Morrie and Dad|
It has been surprising to me and Dad that as soon as people heard the word "hospice," they have been calling and asking how they can help. Do we need food? Would Mom like visits from people?
The thing is that for at least two years we have been telling people directly: "Carol would really like you to visit with her." Yet just a handful of family and friends have visited her and in fact more people have withdrawn from her than visited her since she was diagnosed with dementia seven years ago.
There are a few things going on here that I can tell. One is, like with most diseases of the brain, people are scared of dementia. Dementia has a lot of stigma attached to it and people don't know how to communicate with their loved ones with memory loss. Due to fear and being uncomfortable, people often abandon those with dementia.
However, as soon as someone goes on hospice, things become more understandable to people. First they assume there will always be a medical professional around, so they wont be left alone with their loved one and they feel more safe. Just because someone is in hospice does not mean they have caregivers with them at all times though. Second is that people know hospice means someone is dying which interestingly makes people more comfortable than trying to deal with a chronic illness that they can't fix and seems to have no end in sight. The word "hospice" means "end" to many people. People think there are things you can do in the end, and everyone wants to be of use. They want to cook food, clean linens, do dishes, get groceries, etc...
What people don't know is that you can often help people most just by your presence, by spending time with them. In any illness, no amount of food made, sheets changed, or dishes cleaned matter in the end. The deep feeling of abandonment when people pull away and don't visit breaks someone's spirit in a way that is indescribable and at the end of their days, that feeling of long-term abandonment is what they will remember, even people with dementia.
In my experience with Mom and in my work ministering to many people at the end of their life, I have seen the most pain happen not because of illness or the question of "Why is this happening to me?" but rather the question "Why did everyone leave me?" This is the spiritual question at the center of their suffering.
I try to explain that people don't pull away because they don't care. Rather our American culture has taught us to be afraid of anyone who acts "different." We also hide the sick and dying and we think we can fix everything. We teach that the only way we are of use is to solve problems but not deal with emotions. So most people pull away because they just don't know how to be present with us in our hardest times.
Along the same lines, this abandonment happens not only to the person with dementia but to their caregivers as well. Bob DeMarco has written a wonderful piece about this in the Alzheimer's Reading Room called Are Alzheimer's Caregivers The Forgotten? He is much more blunt than I am and I would just like to quote one part of his post: "Like it or not, if you are a family member or friend of an Alzheimer's caregiver and you are not helping them -- you have abandoned them. I am sure this sounds harsh. But, it's not even close to the harshness of your own behavior."
I do hope that this blog post helps you if you have a loved on who is sick to know that your presence is needed before they end up in hospice. I know it's scary and uncomfortable, but if you can visit for a bit you will bring more help to your loved one than any medication, cleaning, or doctor can. You are walking with them through the hardest and loneliest time of their life. You are the footprints of God which will accompany your loved one on their journey.