The Truth About Death and the Nursing Home

For the past, almost five years, I have worked in a nursing facility. Starting out I worked in Palliative Care (a program set up to aide residents and families in the process of dying). Two years later I switched to another department within the same facility; however, I still experience death on a weekly bases.

The uncomfortable aspect of death that no one wants to think about is the aspect of life I see most often. This post is what I would like you to know, especially if you are met with this situation.

On occasion an elderly person will peacefully pass away in their sleep; however, that isn’t always the case. The reality is, death is a process, a process that may take a few days or a few weeks.

Death begins with loss of appetite, lack of desire to interact with others, more it moves to weight loss. Those symptoms transfer onto the family members I see walking the halls. They’ve skipped meals, their usual smiles and “hello’s” have turned into nervously biting their lower lip while they briefly look up at you while their head remains down at their phones. They’re texting updates, scrolling through pictures, or just staring at an empty screen. Because they feel empty.

Please know that I understand you’re not 100% and there is no need to apologize for the half smile. I appreciate that you’re even still trying to smile.

Please know that it’s okay if you cry to me, it’s okay if you ask me for a hug, it’s okay if when I say “yes” to that hug you hold on tightly. It’s okay that you can’t be strong for yourself right now.

Please know that we are worried about you, too. We’ll ask you if you’ve eaten, if you’ve had water, how many hours of sleep you’ve had. Know that we only ask because we know you’re not thinking about food or water or sleep. Sometimes, two days will go by and all you’ve eaten was a banana. We’re worried for you because this isn’t healthy. You know that, you’re just not thinking about you right now. So let me think about you, for you.

It’s okay to go for a walk. No one is expecting you to stay in that room 24/7, in fact, we encourage you not to. Come out and talk to us. Talk to us about anything, about the weather, about your job, ask about our jobs. We’ll know you need to get your mind off of things and we will help you the best we can.

If you need to go home and scream into a pillow, no one is going to judge you. We go home and scream into pillows sometimes, too. Because let’s face it, we don’t like seeing you or your loved one go through this. We don’t like death either.

And although there are 500 things that you should know when your loved one is dying in a nursing home, here is the important one, it’s okay to tell us you’re lost and ask for help. This may be your 5th loved one to die, or 10th loved one to die, but I’ve experienced this 100 times. It’s okay to ask me how to cope, it’s okay to ask me for advice. It’s okay to tell me you need help. I already know you do, but I won’t dare give you unsolicited advice nor will I imply you don’t “got it.” Even if I can tell you really don’t.

I’ll be there. I’ll see the tears and I’ll shed my own. I’ll keep an eye out for you and occasionally ask you if you’re hungry. I’ll do my best hand-off approach at helping, but you’re always welcome to ask for more help.

Death is a vulnerable time. This isn’t a time for pride, it’s a time for love.

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