Marta is a spunky Panamanian. This sprite of a woman has the energy of a chipmunk and the playful spirit to match. When engaged in a game of balloon volleyball, Marta bounces around the room in her sequined ballet slippers, fuzzy socks and cropped jeans, giggling and batting the balloon to her friends. Many friends. In fact, Marta is the most popular kid on the block–a popularity that was earned the old fashioned way.
Marta has a gift for making people feel special. As a minister’s wife, mother and teacher, she has had a lifetime of opportunities to perfect this skill. However, the glint in her eye and the curl of her mouth when she hugs another resident tells me that her unique way of letting others know they are loved comes naturally. And yet, as delightful as she is, Marta is plagued by a deep and constant sadness.
Marta’s husband died. Or shall I say, Marta’s husband dies. Every day. Or, perhaps several times a day. And each time the realization strikes, the feelings of loss and despair are as fresh as the first time Edwardo passed away.
This scenario is not uncommon for people who live with dementia. One man I visited would become so grief-stricken over the news that his wife died, that his caretakers decided it was kinder to let him believe his own story. Although only a few months before her untimely death, Dan’s high-school sweetheart moved into the nursing home with him so they could be together, Dan insisted that his wife refused to visit because she no longer loved him. It was heart-breaking.
When I entered the residency that spring afternoon, Marta was perched on the edge of the fireplace. Her large brown eyes were round. The lines in her forehead were sharp. She was sad and perplexed. I approached her.
“Hi, Marta! How are you?” I inquired.
Her eyes met mine. “I’m sad.”
“What’s troubling you?” I knew she was thinking about Edwardo.
“I think my husband died.”
I tilted my head, inviting her to continue.
“I was with my daughter today. I asked Lorena if he died, but she wouldn’t tell me.” Marta paused. “Did he die?”
I know Lorena. She has earned my highest compliment; She is a true reflection of her mother. I can only imagine how difficult this is for her.
I was now kneeling in front of Marta. I took her hands in mine. “What do you think, Marta?”
“I think he died.”
“I think you might be right.”
The lines in her forehead softened. Her eyes swelled. She was still sad. But she was clear. In this moment she was clear.
She fingered the gold Blessed Mother Mary that rested against her collarbone.
“I know this is very sad for you, Marta. But, you are going to see him again.” I spoke these words with absolute conviction. “You just have to finish your work here. And then, when you’re done, you will see him.” I smiled gently.
“What is my work?” She gave me her full attention.
“Your work, Marta,” I replied, “is here. The people that live here need you. They need you to tell them you love them. They need you to tell them they are valuable. You do this every day, and it’s so important.”
The start of a smile on her face prompted me to circle back. “And what a wonderful reunion it will be! You will both be young and healthy. And he will be so happy to hold you in his arms.”
At that moment, Marta hopped to her feet. Hope. It spread across her face like the sunrise over Lake Michigan. “You really think so?” She beamed.
“Marta, I know so.”
What Marta Taught Me:
As with any relationship, it takes time to get to know the people I visit with and learn how I can best be a friend. In this case, I knew that Marta is a woman of faith and believes she will be reunited with her husband after she dies. So, it felt natural to comfort Marta by reinforcing her own beliefs. I learned to follow her lead and my intuition. If I had been unsure of Marta’s spiritual beliefs, I would have found a different way to approach the situation. It might have been as simple as encouraging a fond memory of her husband.
Marta also taught me that helping someone who suffers from dementia express their own truths can be more effective than simply relating the facts. Marta didn’t need me to tell her that Edwardo died. She simply wanted confirmation that her own thoughts were valid. That was something I could easily offer.
Finally, this experience demonstrates how a visiting volunteer can provide a comfort that family or other loved ones may be unable to. Although I didn’t speak directly with Marta’s daughter, I know that it must be very difficult for her to continually remind her mother of her father’s death. But, because I was further removed from the situation and didn’t need to tend to my own emotions, I could help Marta by offering her my complete attention.