Ghosts of yesteryear


By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.

Marianne Delorey discusses her need to protect her heart from the many dying residents over the years.
Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.

“You don’t protect your heart by acting like you don’t have one.” – Anonymous

When you work with elders, you get used to death and dying. You occasionally get bummed out that someone’s smile isn’t there to greet you. Heck, you are human; there are times when you are glad their suffering is over or you felt like it was time. As an eldercare worker, you build walls around your heart so you can continue doing what you do. Humans just can’t feel each death as deeply, our hearts were not meant for that level of loss. And so we brace for it. We keep our residents/clients/customers at arm’s length.

But there is always one that slips through the cracks. That one differs for all of us. If you are new to the field, they are often the first person whose death you experienced. Sometimes, they remind us of someone special. They may wear a silly hat that reminds you of your grandfather or use the same perfume as your great aunt. Sometimes you just can’t explain why someone leaves a mark on your soul, but they do.

When I think back on my career, my mind’s eye sees an amalgamation of white hair and walkers. But when I slow the reel down, I see each person for the gifts they gave – the kindness, the lessons, the laughter, and the tears.

The first was Nora, at 106 and with a gangrenous leg, she lay dying in bed the first day I started work in a nursing home. They asked me to sit beside her, and I did. She was still alert and answered simple questions. I was terrified. What if she died on my watch? What if I failed to give her what she needed? And what would you know, she reassured me that it would be ok. I can still hear her saying, “Yes, dear.” And “No, dear” in a sweet brogue when I asked if I could do anything for her. Watching her suffer was a hard first lesson. Her death was a relief for both her and me.

Jack was the most recent one who slipped through my steely defenses. He will be remembered for a long time because of who he was, but also how he was. He was a resident, a member of a staff person’s family, a neighbor, and a previous staff member. But it isn’t because of this that he meant so much. He will be remembered because he acknowledged you in ways that other people could not or did not.

I’m sure all of our staff here have a Jack story. He used to write me notes and slip chocolates under my door. He would stop me and let me know he noticed something I did – always a positive, encouraging comment. In all the years I knew him, I think he complained once. 

And so for the eldercare workers, take a moment to remember who has slipped through – the one you let into your heart. Allow the memory of that one to fill your soul. Remember their smile, their expressions, their mannerisms. Remember the lesson they taught you. Remember how you touched them. And just for one more moment, allow yourself to remember how it felt to have your walls breached. How good it felt to care, to laugh, and to love with abandon. Now, I know you will have to rebuild that wall again. Do not feel bad about that. We need to care for ourselves, too. Your heart will be protected again, but you will have a break from holding that gate shut so tightly.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Colony Retirement Homes. She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or and



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