Unlikely Teammates?: Healthy Babies and Sick Elders
My son made his first hospice visit when he was eighteen months old. One day, I mentioned to Lois, the elderly woman I was visiting, that I had a toddler son, and she replied, “Oh, bring him with you every time.” This was years before Medicare would create regulations for the entire hospice world; we had no rules disallowing visits from children or other family members of staff and volunteers.
I explained to Owen that we would be going to see Mama’s friend, who was very old and quite sick, that we would sit on her couch and listen to her tell stories. “Okay, Mama,” he said, undaunted by the mention of advanced age or illness or stories. Much of his life had been spent sitting with me and listening to stories or visiting me in the hospital. This would be very similar, just with a new friend.
As soon as we walked in the door, I saw Lois’ eyes brighten. “Come over here, young man,” she called to my son. He gently snuggled up to her as she put her arm around him. They stayed like that for our entire visit -- and for months of weekly visits after that. Owen became a significant member of her healthcare team. His role was to bring his toddler enthusiasm and curiosity, his hugs and sparkly laughter. And he fulfilled it well.
His younger sister, too, became a member of that very same healthcare team; she, however, was recruited even before she was born. Lois celebrated my new pregnancy with us and watched my belly grow larger throughout the year. She and Owen talked at length about him becoming a big brother and about the kind of care babies needed.
Grace was ten days old when we bundled her up, strapped her into her carseat, and headed over to introduce her to Lois. My mom was in town, and she came along to help me juggle kids and the mounds of supplies they require. We have a picture of my tiny dark-haired daughter, held lovingly in Lois’ arms; on the reverse reads the inscription, “Grace’s first hospice visit.”
Those visits continued -- Owen, Grace, and I appearing at Lois’ door weekly to sit on her floral couches in her sunlit living room to listen to her stories and to share a few of our own -- for six months after Grace’s birth. They stopped only because we moved out of the country.
It took me awhile to realize that my kids were not only members of Lois’ healthcare team. Lois was a significant ally on their teams as well. Spending time on her couch each week introduced them to the work of solidarity; helped them feel comfortable with new friends who happened to be ill; and concretized in them the awareness that being sick is not scary, that wellness arrives in all forms even amongst the seriously ill, and that everyone needs and deserves companionship. This has affected their own relationships with health and wellness in countless ways.
Owen is now 21 years old and visiting his own hospice patients. He continues to serve on the healthcare team of many folks experiencing terminal illness, and he plans to enter the field of medicine soon. This fall, Grace will soon begin working on her nursing degree in college. They both will serve on countless healthcare teams professionally, and I know that their lives will present many opportunities for them to be on the teams of family and friends. My hope is that they will create their own healthcare teams with wisdom and clairty.
Children may seem like unlikely choices for healthcare teams, but they are quite natural. They bring with them very little judgment or fear, unless others have gifted them with scary stories and strong beliefs about illness. The daily schedules and lifestyles of our youngest children are not dissimilar from those of the chronically ill; their worlds revolve around physical needs, they contemplate important things like clouds and butterflies and friendship and love, and they have abundant time to share stories and listen to one another.
Years ago, this touching story was released about a four year old girl’s call of “Hi, old person” to an elderly shopper at the grocery store and the relationship that developed from it; it’s one to treasure.
A recent update reveals that their friendship lasted the remainder of his days.
I feel certain that young Norah served as a faithful member of Mr. Dan’s healthcare team, providing him with treatment and care not available at his doctor’s office or from a chaplain, therapist, or even a close family members -- just as my children had done for Lois. I also believe that Norah has a forever member on her team now in Mr. Dan.