Stone Soup – It just makes sense
When someone you care about is coming near the end of their life, there is often a feeling of helplessness both for the person, and those near and dear to them. I’ve been in the presence of those passing on many occasions and I’ve come to realize that there are some simple basic things one can do that express love and concern.
I like to think about the senses when approaching someone ill, whether they are in the hospital or at home. We move through the world using our five senses and sometimes these are compromised when illness is present.
Here are some helpful hints:
Sight: Does the room look tidy and clean? A simple clean room without any extraneous boxes or piles of paper makes it nicer to be in. I like to bring a mobile in, or helium balloons, just for someone to look at for diversion. Unless you’ve lain in bed for days or weeks, you forget how boring it is to see only the ceiling. Positioning the bed so that the person can see out a window or watch children play outside through a screen door can be very comforting.
Smell: Illness can make things smell bad. A room can be kept clean but a person who is ill often emits odors that cannot be helped. Wonderful scented lotions are welcomed gifts, but I also try to put some essential oils on cotton balls, and place them in a zip lock baggie for the caregivers. One or two placed under the pillow can help when that special niece or nephew leans in for a hug. A vase with fragrant flowers near the bed can be a welcome treat also.
Hearing: The closer a person gets to the end, the more acute the hearing is so I’m told. For this reason it’s so nice to keep the atmosphere in the manner that the person preferred before illness. While you might think someone who is dying would like to hear soothing Mozart, if that person really loved heavy metal, chances are that is what they would still love to hear. Keeping the room free of over-stimulating extra noise is so important, it’s best to keep only one conversation going, not multiple. You can often see agitation in people who are sick, and it’s often related to too many sounds in the room colliding with them having no control over it. If there is already an oxygen concentrator running and conversation, try to turn down the music or television.
Taste: This is tough, as one’s taste buds often peter out when illness is involved. Medications can make food taste terrible, leaving the person frustrated at such a loss. Before a person has lost the ability to swallow you can bring them their favorite drink in a beautiful glass. Let them try to smell it first, and then encourage them to hold it in their mouth a minute to savor it. Flavored lollipops or hard candies are tasty and can help with dry mouth also. There are also flavored rinses specifically made to hydrate the oral cavity when radiation or other treatments damage the taste buds. When someone has lost the ability to swallow, lemon flavored swabs are available to run alongside the inside of the gums and cheeks.
Touch: Who doesn’t remember what it was like to have that soft “blankie” when you were little? These tactile comforts are so appreciated by a person who is often in pain and unable to find comfort in bed. A soft blanket with a smooth satin binding is lovely. I gave a grown man who was a friend a stuffed animal to have and touch as he was nearing the end of his life because it was so soft. He passed on and his daughter has it now. Her mother told me recently how much it meant to them both.
A note about pets: Animals often know just the right way to comfort the sick and it’s nice to try to make a way for them to visit, even in the hospital.
I made a house visit once to a hospice patient. This older man was lying in bed, sullen and withdrawn. His faithful German shepherd was lying on the floor next to the bed, unwilling to move. I asked the family why the dog wasn’t in bed with the owner, and they said they thought the man was too fragile.
I brought a step stool over to the bed and motioned for the dog to come up. He leaped into bed with his owner, and the old man threw his arms around his companion. They needed each other and once this was accomplished you could see the pure joy in both of them.