.- I remember it perfectly, like a snapshot in my mindâs eye. A cold, grey morning in February with a new referral already staring back at me from the top of my desk.
âNow what?â I thought. As a staff psychologist on a hospital rehabilitation floor, there were always more patients to see than there was time in the day. The latest referral was a 44-year-old patient named Madeline who was paralyzed from the neck down. Her doctor felt she was depressed because he often saw tears on her cheeks. As I read the referral more closely I saw that Madeline also couldnât speak, and it was doubtful that she could even understand what was said to her.
âYouâre not going to be able to do much with her,â said my colleague when he saw the referral. âJust go see her a couple times to keep her doctor happy.â I must admit my colleagueâs prediction seemed valid. What could I possibly do with a patient who was unable to communicate with me in any way?
My first visit to Madeline furthered my doubts. The only part of her that could move were her eyes, which seemed clear and focused intently on me as I introduced myself. I explained her doctorâs concerns and promised to see her again the next day, but it seemed a waste of the insurance companyâs money to pay me to just sit and talk to Madeline each day. I couldnât have been more wrong.
Over the subsequent months, I learned just how little I really knew about human communication. Madelineâs body had ceased functioning, but she was still in there, trapped inside. A little effort soon proved that I could reach her. With a system of eye blinks Madeline was able to respond with a âyesâ or ânoâ to my questions. Many times she cried with me, and many times I just sat and held her hand. It wasnât long before the doctor reported that Madeline no longer seemed depressed.
Many of our impaired elderly suffer in similar ways as Madeline. Like Madelineâs doctor, we may only see what the outward appearance shows us. However, those we love are still there, if only on an emotional level â if we only take the time, and courage, to truly look.
âI donât see the point of going to see Grandma anymore. She doesnât even know who I am.â How many times have you heard someone say those words? When those we love cease to behave the way they always have, itâs easy to think theyâre no longer really there. However, Grandma may not recognize family members, or be able to communicate as she always did, but she is still there. Some essential part of who she is still remains, can still be touched if only reached for.
âI thought Mom couldnât understand anything I said anymore,â Janet commented. Her mother had been confined to a nursing home for over a year. âLast week I was sitting with her, just watching her stare off into space as usual, when I noticed the Bible at her bedside. I started to read one of Momâs favorite verses out loud...and thatâs when I saw Mom smile, just a little smile, but it meant so much to me.â
The Bible tell us that â...nothing can ever separate us from His love...â (Romans 8:38). Even loved ones who are severely impaired will often react to well-loved prayers or Bible verses. Janetâs mom may not have fully comprehended what was being read to her, but she could âfeelâ those same feelings she had learned to associate with those words all her life. The love and comfort of Godâs Word still reached her through her muddled memory and touched that unique and precious center of who she was inside.
Sometimes there are no words at all. âIt was hard to just sit with him each day,â remembers Ron. âHe didnât know I was there, but I felt like I needed to be anyway.â Ronâs father was in a coma-like state for months before his death. âIf he could have just squeezed my hand it would have made such a difference to me.â
When there is no sign at all of awareness from a loved one, it can be particularly difficult. Do they know we are there? Does it matter if we visit? When I think of family members like Ron, and all the other patients and their families I have known, my thoughts return again and again to 1 Corinthians 13:13, âThere are three things that remain â faith, hope, and love â and the greatest of these is love.â No matter how impaired our loved ones may be, no matter how painful our time spent with them may become, there is still that unfailing element of hope and comfort that comes from our faithâs assurance of the undying power of love. It was there in Madelineâs eye blinks, the sweet smile of Janetâs mother...and yes, it was even there as Ron visited with his father. Faith, hope, and love cannot be contained within our physical shells, it is still there, able to be grasped if only we will reach for it.
Lynn Klammer is a licensed clinical psychologist, educator and author.
Printed with permission from Clearly Caring Magazine, Jan/Feb 2008, Vol. 28, No. 1.