Hospice and the Love Hormone

It was her voice I first heard as a child learning my way in the world. [Photo – London Scout/Unsplash.com]

On a thousand and more Saturday mornings, I called Mom.

We talked about nothing. We talked about everything.

Saturday early morning was our weekly date. There were times—I’ll be honest—that it smacked of an obligation. I should call Mom. There were also weekends where the call was interrupted by her schedule or mine. But over the course of those years, the calls were a fixture, a way for us, living in different zip and area codes, to connect for a few moments.

The last call was in the summer of 2013, a few weeks before she died. I miss her voice.

How much do voices matter?

Not long ago, I read about research conducted in 2010 by University of Wisconsin’s Leslie Seltzer. A biological anthropologist, here’s what Seltzer and his team of researchers found when they:

. . . tested a group of seven-to-12-year-old girls with an impromptu speech and series of math problems in front of a panel of strangers, sending their hearts racing and levels of cortisol—a hormone associated with stress—soaring.

Once stressed, one-third of the girls were comforted in person by their mothers—specifically with hugs, an arm around the shoulders and the like. One-third were left to watch an emotion-neutral 75-minute video. The rest were handed a telephone. It was mom on the line, and the effect was dramatic.

“The children who got to interact with their mothers had virtually the same hormonal response, whether they interacted in person or over the phone,” Seltzer says.

The girls’ levels of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” and strongly associated with emotional bonding, rose significantly and the stress-marking cortisol washed away.

Wow! . . . was how I felt when first running across this research. My quick glance at other like-minded studies confirmed Seltzer’s simple, powerful insights about the impact of the human voice.

I prefer to interact with people in person. Instead of those phone calls to Mom on Saturdays, it would have been swell, in a Star Trek kind of way, to have beamed next to Mom at her kitchen table for our chat. Mom’s words and presence could calm me down. My mother, for me, was a cheerleader and gentle critic. I trusted her views. But Dr. Seltzer’s findings suggest that hearing was enough, that I wasn’t losing all that much by reaching for the phone, pressing in some numbers on the keypad, and having a 10-minute or hour-long conversation.

It doesn’t surprise me that hugs are better than texting, instant messaging, emails, and social media posting. Any average elementary-aged kid handling a speech and a math test while in front of a panel of adult strangers will be intimidated. Their stress levels will rocket to the moon! But what if Mom puts a comforting arm around the shoulder?

Or what if, at the other end of a phone, a mile or 10,000 miles away, Mom’s voice fills your ear and heart? Surprisingly, life is suddenly a little, or a lot, better.

How much do voices matter? I wonder about that personally and with my work in hospice.

Nearly every day at the office, I press numbers on a phone’s keypad to connect with grievers. My job is to check on them. These people had parents and grandparents and children and friends who were served by my hospice. Then, they died. Now, hospice calls to see how they are doing. Some phones have been disconnected. On many occasions, we only leave messages. Many of the conversations are abrupt. A grieving person can’t or won’t talk. And other conversations, randomly and powerfully, become vulnerable, precious moments where the words and silences shared with the other person truly seem to make a difference.

Voices do matter. I didn’t need research to confirm that “fact.” I consider that every time I leave a voice mail message. First, I understand that some will ignore a voice mail that I leave, or will immediately delete it. That’s what we do these days. But, still, I take the time to explain who I am and why I’m calling. I never forget I’m calling someone who has likely experienced the death of the most important person in their life.

In the support groups I lead, I listen to the participants talk with each other. I know, in so many cases, how precious their shared words can be. Another understands my pain.  Another listens to my story. The sharing and listening—the voices—are part of each one’s healing.

My hospice colleagues that visit patients encourage family members to talk to their dying loved ones. In some cases, it’s because a conversation has not taken place. People need to hear that they are loved, forgiven, understood, appreciated. Tell them! But there are also patients, no longer alert and oriented, no longer able to speak, who are still—maybe, possibly—able to hear. Speak to them.

I recall sitting by Mom’s hospital bed as she neared death, with massive doses of drugs battling her pain, and I kept talking. It was her voice I first heard as a child learning my way in the world. I wanted her to hear my voice in her final days.

In the congregations I served as a pastor, I sat beside many church members—in hospitals or bedrooms or recliners in the corner of living rooms—when they were ill or dying and couldn’t speak. I spoke.

I’m not Mom.

My voice doesn’t guarantee boosting anyone’s oxytocin level!

But I do believe the voice matters. During hospice care, whether or not you think your loved one can hear, isn’t it time to voice the words that should be shared?

(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.)

[Photo from here.]

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  1. Thank you for this reassuring and beautifully human post. I imagine your voice boosts the oxytocin level for many. I did bereavement calls for years as well as leading groups. Just speaking the name of the person who died is powerful and sometimes it’s too much for a participant so they just write the name or the relationship. Until 2016, Saturday morning was call time with my only sibling. My brother died two years ago. His voice was weak and my hearing was weaker, but it was still reassuring to make the effort. In person was better (but an 8 hour drive) because I could read lips, but our phone rituals were always helpful and made us both feel loved.

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