Caring for our dear elders,
Throughout my service as a palliative and hospice volunteer I visited assisted living centers as well as the homes of our elders who had been diagnosed and living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. On a few occasions as I entered their room and introduced myself, some of the patients appeared as though they were clutching something in their hands. As my friendship and trust developed I casually and respectfully asked what it was they were so tenderly holding. To my surprise their responses went something like; “Oh this is my dog,” or “This is my kitten.” From that moment on I began bringing a few puppets along with me and as I gently placed a soft furry animal in their arms they began to hug and hold – and speak to them. The puppets became a conduit to sparking precious memories and their, “Once upon a time.” I discovered that the mere mention of their shaggy old dog, or furry babies helped by providing an important, albeit brief pathway into a very happy place … their past.
And their story began. …
Questions the volunteer might incorporate into their conversations might range anywhere from: What color was your furry friend, what were some of your favorite things to do with your ‘buddy’, places to go, where were you living, (farm, beach, etc.), vacations taken with your pet? – the list is endless. As always, a profound respect must accompany the use of puppets. The puppets may not have to ‘speak’ at all. Sometimes a patient simply needs to hold on to something and quietly remember. They are, “Writing the last chapter of their life,” and through the use of puppets, you are gently bestowing them the joy of remembering, making believe, being given – and in return, receiving, … love.
Gram and her Babies
Marie shared this story with me and I believe it speaks for itself; the profound impact puppets and stuffed animals can have at the end of life is evident.
I am honored to share the story of how my Gram came to love some very special “babies”.
You see, my grandmother always shared her stories and one of her favorites began, “when I was just a small girl I loved to wheel babies.” Her life was filled with the love of caring — caring for babies, animals and children. If there was a need, without blinking Gram would be there to cuddle, cook, clean, mend and listen. Especially listen, across the table with some treat she had made just made for you.
In her 92nd year Gram went to live in a nursing home, she easily became a favorite — offering a kind word and a smile to anyone who passed by. Due to her dementia, (when every minute was a new day), Gram still acted as though you were the oldest of friends. Gram’s roommates were tough — Gram pretended they weren’t and she made her corner of the room a happy place. As time went on Gram became more fragile physically and mentally — it was a happy surprise when she, we like to say, ”borrowed”, a beautiful stuffed kitty from her neighbor Adeline. This kitty became real to Gram and we of course would go on to gift her with many more stuffed animals. Little kittens, a long haired black cat, a puppy…I remember my boys arranging them in her arms and her telling them, “Be careful of this little one” or “Isn’t he the nicest kitty?” It was a comfort to leave Gram with a kitten in her arms when it was time to end a visit. Gram always loved babies and kitties…really isn’t it wonderful that she was able to fill this place in her heart?
My Gram had the care of family, the nursing staff and in her last months, Hospice. It became all of our routine to make sure Gram’s “babies” were comfortable. Because, while caring for these babies Gram was caring for herself, the deepest part of herself that longed to hold another baby, or show her grandchildren a new batch of kitties in the back of the closet.
It wasn’t until my best friend Essie asked me to think about, and share this story that I realized how profound and important it must be to have something to hold onto, when all else is slipping away. Thank you for listening to a very important piece of my Grandmother’s story. Perhaps if you see empty arms, you may think to fill them with something soft and sweet. It can really help.