I remember it perfectly, like a snapshot in my mind’s eye. A cold, grey morning in February with a new referral already staring back at me from the top of my desk.
“Now what?” 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 couldn’t speak, and it was doubtful that she could even understand what was said to her.
“You’re not going to be able to do much with her,” said my colleague when he saw the referral. “Just go see her a couple times to keep her doctor happy.” I must admit my colleague’s 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 doctor’s concerns and promised to see her again the next day, but it seemed a waste of the insurance company’s money to pay me to just sit and talk to Madeline each day. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the subsequent months, I learned just how little I really knew about human communication. Madeline’s 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 “yes” or “no” to my questions. Many times she cried with me, and many times I just sat and held her hand. It wasn’t long before the doctor reported that Madeline no longer seemed depressed.
Many of our impaired elderly suffer in similar ways as Madeline. Like Madeline’s doctor, we may only see what the outward appearance shows us. However, those we love are still there, if only on an emotional level — if we only take the time, and courage, to truly look.
“I don’t see the point of going to see Grandma anymore. She doesn’t even know who I am.” How many times have you heard someone say those words? When those we love cease to behave the way they always have, it’s easy to think they’re 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.
“I thought Mom couldn’t understand anything I said anymore,” Janet commented. Her mother had been confined to a nursing home for over a year. “Last 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 Mom’s favorite verses out loud...and that’s when I saw Mom smile, just a little smile, but it meant so much to me.”
The Bible tell us that “...nothing can ever separate us from His love...” (Romans 8:38). Even loved ones who are severely impaired will often react to well-loved prayers or Bible verses. Janet’s mom may not have fully comprehended what was being read to her, but she could “feel” those same feelings she had learned to associate with those words all her life. The love and comfort of God’s 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. “It was hard to just sit with him each day,” remembers Ron. “He didn’t know I was there, but I felt like I needed to be anyway.” Ron’s father was in a coma-like state for months before his death. “If he could have just squeezed my hand it would have made such a difference to me.”
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, “There are three things that remain — faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love.” 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 faith’s assurance of the undying power of love. It was there in Madeline’s eye blinks, the sweet smile of Janet’s 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.