In the brief time I was a hospice chaplain in the late 1990s, and certainly as a pastor serving churches, I entered into people’s homes.
I’d spend time at kitchen tables, settle onto sofas and often—especially with hospice patients—pull up a folding chair and sit next to a bed. Maybe I’d talk about an upcoming baptism for an infant around one of those tables, with the remnants of dinner still between the excited parents and me. Or on that sofa, balancing a cup of coffee, I’d help an eager couple plan their upcoming wedding. However, when I eased onto a chair by someone’s bed, it was rarely a happy occasion.
I recall one church member who’d had back surgery and was bed-bound for months. While Marilyn was blessed with many friends, most of them worked during the day. For long stretches, she felt alone and lonely. And so I sat beside her, my prayers for her strength and health probably as important as our joking and swapping stories that helped pass the dreary time.
While a hospice chaplain, I visited “Tick and Tock,” a couple married for over 60 years. Their names were something like Thomas and Theresa, but after decades together their private joke was to refer to him as Tick and her as Tock. Their marriage was clockwork: one started a sentence and the other finished, one washed dishes and the other dried. Tick, dying of cancer, told me about serving during World War II and meeting Tock for the first time and about never being able to have children.
During the visits with Marilyn, and Tick and Tock (and many others), I came to know folks in intimate ways. I learned about their fears. Their embarrassments. Their accomplishments. What a privilege to listen to others, to support folks when they are most vulnerable.
One day Tick mentioned his hospice home health aide. The HHA—I’ll call her Jane—visited several times a week and assisted him with the activities of daily living (aka, the ADLs). Jane would brush Tick’s pearly whites, clean his shit (pardon me for being blunt, but it’s true), change his pajamas and give him his bath. Tock was too feeble to assist, but she’d cheerlead from the sidelines as Jane helped Tick feel, well, human. Doesn’t everyone feel better when their teeth are brushed and they’re squeaky clean after a bath? Tick and Tock were facing death—one would soon die, the other would grieve for the remainder of her life—but newly-laundered jammies and warm sheets tucked up to a chin still represented a treat!
Tick said of Jane, “That woman has washed me in places I have never seen!” He chortled, and then added, “She is such an angel!”
Whether a pastor at a church or a chaplain for hospice, I have witnessed the private moments in other’s lives; I have seen their best and worst, their proudest and scariest. But as Tick and Tock continued, on that day, to praise hospice and give thanks for all the support, and to thank me for visiting, I came to realize how precious Jane was to them.
Most HHAs don’t get paid much. They don’t have fancy titles or educational accomplishments attached to their names like the nurses, doctors, social workers and chaplains. And they do literally confront a lot of shit. They try to help patients with dementia (like my father in the two years before he died) that will kick and yell at anyone trying to assist them. We may not see helping another brush teeth or scrub a back in a bathtub or tie a shoelace as a big deal. But it is.
What makes us feel human, feel worthwhile, feel appreciated?
I believe visits to church members and hospice patients were a valued part of my work. Whether saying a heartfelt prayer for a woman with cancer or consoling a man shaking and weeping because of losing his job, I entered into lives and tried to make a difference. But that day with Tick and Tock revealed how even the “simplest” and most “basic” of tasks help others feel fully human.
I deeply respect and am humbled by the work of home health aides.
Tick and Tock were right . . . HHAs are earthbound angels.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by