“To touch the soul of another human being, is to walk on Holy Ground.” ~ Stephen Covey
I hear her cry long before I see her.
"Help. Somebody help me!"
Rounding the corner, I take in the mini-drama playing itself out on the back hallway at Sunrise Senior Living at Pinehurst where I live out my love on a daily basis. *Donna and *Barney stand face-to-face, just outside his room. She is clearly confused, he equally befuddled, not at all certain what to do with the distraught woman standing in front of him.
"What's wrong Donna?" I ask, walking slowly toward her careful lest I startle her and cause her to fall.
"Oh, no," she groans looking from Barney to me, "Now I'm in trouble."
Laying a hand softly on her arm I speak kindly, "You're not in trouble, Donna. Let's see what we can do to help you." She's been with us for a few days of respite while her family is out of town. The change in venue has been difficult as it is for most folk suffering from dementia. Though she is perfectly safe, nothing about her new surrounding is familiar. Her world, though very small these days, has changed and it both frightens and threatens her.
I ease Donna into a nearby wheelchair, gently crooning, “It's going to be okay."
"No, no, no!" she cries, "It will never be okay again."
I steer the chair with one hand and tenderly pat her shoulder with the other as I move her toward the door to her room. Pushing it open, I ease her toward the window hoping the serene view will reassure her that she is in a quiet, safe place.
It does not.
With each passing moment, her anxiety escalates. She begins crying even louder, wringing her hands and looking frantically about the room as if plotting her escape.
God help me, I whisper a silent prayer. Show me what I can do to calm her.
Dementia plays cruel tricks in the minds of those unfortunate enough to suffer the malady. In its initial stages, it causes one to forget recent events or conversations. As it progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp new ideas or to follow basic conversation. Judgment is skewed and decision-making takes on gigantic proportions. Common tasks performed over a lifetime without second thought, become more complex. The loss of independence and capability shrink what was once a grand, waiting-to-be-explored world of adventure and opportunity, to one seemingly fraught with danger. Anxiety, agitation and fear become unwanted bedfellows who delight in tormenting their fragile prey.
"I have to leave." Donna pleads. "Please, I have to go home." Though she lives in Colorado now, she is referencing the home she had in earlier years. That home is hundreds of miles away. "My plane leaves in the morning and I'm going to miss it." In her mind, what she is saying makes perfect sense; to explain otherwise will only confuse her further. Instead, I attempt to redirect her thinking.
Propped against her bedside lamp is a small photograph. I pick it up and show it to her. "That's my family," she says. I bring it closer so she can see it better. For a second, maybe two, she settles then she begins to cry once more. The picture has served only to remind that she is away from those she loves and that she must find a way to get back to them. I return it to its place by the lamp. This isn’t working.
I glance around the room, desperate for something, anything that will settle her heart. On her nightstand is a worn Bible, one I suspect is hers. "Look, here's your Bible." I carefully lift it and place it in her hands. She absentmindedly thumbs through the worn pages. "Donna," I reassure, "God loves you so much. He's right here with you. He will help you."
"No! No! He expects me to do what I can."
"That's true Donna. But, especially when there's nothing we can do, God is near."
She’s crying in earnest now, though her tears are no longer tears of anxious despair. I feel as though I have taken a trip inside her broken heart. Carefully, I lift the Bible from her hands and lay it back on the nightstand. Then I do what I do best. I wrap her in my arms and pull her close.
Surmising her to be a woman of faith, I begin quoting scripture. "The Lord is my Shepherd. . ." She leans closer, laying her head on my shoulder. "I shall not want." We say the rest of the beloved Psalm together and it soothes her.
Having finally found something that is comforting, I am reluctant to stop. I begin to quote other familiar passages, "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." "When I am afraid, I will trust in God." "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee because he trusts in thee." "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths."
As I speak, I softly stroke her back, careful not to tear her delicate, paper-thin skin. She settles visibly in my arms as I continue to whisper, “You are safe. You are loved. We’ll take good care of you.”
I've been away from the front desk for much too long, but I can't say the time has been wasted. She is worth the investment. For just a few minutes her pain became my own.
In the now silent room, with only the sound of her gentle breathing mixed with mine, I realize that I have been accorded a sacred trust. I have felt the sob of another’s soul. I’ve touched it with my own.
I can show you the place. It’s in a private room, on the back hallway of Pinehurst. For just a few minutes tonight, it became Holy Ground.
* name has been changed