Her head hung low when I first saw her. She sat among other nursing home residents in a large gathering area, a television game show blaring nearby.
A few days ago, the hospice volunteer coordinator had called me and asked if I’d be interested in visiting Ann (not her real name). “I’m not sure if she would benefit from visits. Her son told me that she doesn’t seem to know when he’s there. If you decide to go see her, I’d like your feedback. Let me know what you think.”
I was willing to try. As a chaplain, I have sat with people with varying conditions and cognitive abilities. The fact that she suffered from dementia and was no longer communicative was not new to my experience. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll be glad to visit her.”
When I first arrived at Ann’s residence, I asked the nurse to identify her for me. She pointed to a thin, white-haired woman, sitting in her wheelchair. Her head was drooping low but she was awake. I spoke her name, introduced myself, and pulled up a chair beside her, but I soon realized that we needed a quiet space if we were to have half a chance at a meaningful encounter. With the nurse’s permission, I wheeled her to her room.
During our time together I took her hand, offered reassuring words, played music, and read poetry to her. She did not seem to respond to my efforts. Her head continued to hang down, and only occasionally did she look up, groan with a soft cry, and return her head in a downward position.
At the end of our visit, I returned her to the large room where I initially found her. I thanked her for our time together and told her goodbye. At that point, she looked up at me for the first time and smiled! Surprised and moved, I felt the warmth of her smile, and I knew that I’d return again.
Sometimes we wonder if it’s worth our time and energy to visit someone who cannot communicate or will not recognize us. However, I believe that presence has more power to communicate care and compassion than we may realize. Though we may not speak words or hold a conversation, our “just being there” can be deeply and intuitively felt, alleviating the loneliness of a hurting heart that yearns to be acknowledged and known.
Sometimes, though, our humanness needs a sign or small gesture to encourage us and let us know that the time we took out of our busy day was worth it. Her smile did that for me. She gave me a gift that day, a gift that has become a precious memory.