For one of my classes, I need to write frequent reflections on my experiences in the clinical setting. I tend to veer from the standard guidelines they provide, and simply reflect instead. Here’s a recent one. I deleted some of the nursing jargon.
I was both excited and nervous to be returning to clinical. Having volunteered extensively with the older population in nursing home/end-of-life settings, and having lost my grandmother to Alzheimer’s over the course of nearly ten years, I’m familiar with the struggles that blight the elderly, especially those with dementia. I was eager to understand the tremendous services (a gift, truly) the Hebrew Home provides, but I also didn’t expect to learn anything my life experience hasn’t already taught me. But the Hebrew Home resident I spoke with reminded me of another side to this picture: that simple human emotion prevails throughout our life span, and that we all crave, and need to give and receive, love and attention.
She was an elegant woman in her 80s, well-coiffed, and with a diagnosis of Advanced Dementia and Paranoia. After introducing myself, she wanted to let me in on a secret – that she and another resident were deeply in love, and that she wanted them to marry that day. He, however, also had Advanced Dementia and was confined to a wheelchair, spoke a scarce handful of words, and had the sweetest smile once could imagine. She was clearly obsessed and enamored with him, and refused to leave his side throughout our time together. She desperately beseeched him for an answer, that he confirm that he loves her too and wants to marry. He just smiled. Witnessing this interaction was far more important to me than any of the assessments I performed. While it would be simple to write off her idealized love affair to the tragic nature of dementia, it touched me deeply.
It reminded me that, at any age, we crave the intimacy of human experience, and even if one has dementia – or any chronic illness, mental or physical – we cannot label them, or even adopt a standardized approach to care. Rather, I need to understand that the patient has had a lifetime of trials and tribulations, love and heartbreak, and though the patient may not recall a thing about his/her past or even their names, they deserve the greatest of respect and care, as well as simple actions – such as a hug or clasp of the hand – that, I believe, are understood somewhere deep in their beings. This isn’t something new to me, but we all need gentle reminders, urging us to remember that the whole patient is the focus, and that, at any point in illness, we are creatures of emotion and vulnerability. Far from this being a sign of weakness, it means to me that we are still living.