In Stephen King’s, “The Green Mile,” the main character, Paul Edgecomb, talks about his primary role with the inmates on death row. He listens. And he promises them whatever he can in their final hours, even if he knows he cannot keep the promise. He does this because it is better for everyone if their deaths are smooth. But it is also a kindness. Those who are dying need to wrap up loose ends in order to go out with peace.
I have seen this myself when my father was dying of cancer. I was told that the liver is the organ that filters out toxins. When a person’s liver is damaged, the toxins can cause hallucinations. Although logically, I understand that in his final days, my father was fighting an imaginary battle, I think it was also symbolic and very common.
One day, very near the end, he woke, and started emphatically saying, “Where is he?” “You put him here, you put him in front of me!” He was clearly very agitated.
“Dad,” we asked, “Who? What is going on?”
“Al. You get Al and put him in front of me,” he said. “We’ll settle this! You get him!”
Maybe in some far corner of his mind, there was unfinished business with Al. They were friends, but had not always seen eye to eye. But I think it was larger than that. I think Al represented all the grievances he had had with friends and family that he loved. He represented all the hurt that he, and all of us, carry with us each day. He wanted to unburden himself as he left this world and Al was the one who could help him.
So we called Al who came right away.
“I’m so sorry,” my father sobbed, holding Al to him.
Al had no idea what he was sorry for, but he also understood it didn’t really matter. Al comforted and consoled and played the role of a priest during a confession.
“It’s ok, Bill. We’re good.”
A few days later, my father passed. When he passed, he was at peace with whatever stone he felt he had left unturned. Thinking back on this time, I am grateful to Al for helping my father over his last hurdle on Earth. I can never repay him for the kindness he showed our family.
I believe that we, in elder care, sometimes have this opportunity with those we serve. None of us is perfect and all of us age with mistakes, regrets and problems. Elder care workers may not be the actual people with whom our dying elder has issues, but we might be able to pave the way for them to peace.
So, as with Paul in “The Green Mile,” our first role is to listen. Sometimes, that is all we can do. Some elders need to justify their choices, the relationships they walked away from or when they stood up for their own needs. Sometimes, they want to make amends and might need our help reaching out. Sometimes, they need us to be the symbolic villain. Perhaps they are fighting their families. Perhaps they are fighting the system. Perhaps it does not matter. Figurative or otherwise, here is hoping that all of us in elder care can play the necessary roles for our seniors just like Al did for my father as we escort them toward the end of their last walk.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or email@example.com and www.colonyretirementhomes.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com