I approached my first hospice visit with a hint of apprehension. Up until then, my interactions with the elderly had largely been limited to my grandparents – relatives who had known me since my birth. With hospice patients, I was afraid that the intergenerational gap would be insurmountable – not to mention the inherent difficulties of speaking to a patient who may be losing his or her mental faculties. I soon learned that I could not have been more wrong.
In my very first hospice visit, we visited one very kind, intelligent patient who not only had full command of her mental abilities, but remembered very vivid details from her childhood – details she often shared with us in the form of stories. On that first day, we gathered around her bedside like young schoolchildren, and I saw her eyes light up as she conversed with us about her life experiences. It seemed as though she could never run out of stories to tell. We spent two hours this way, her speaking and us listening. Ever since that very first visit, I have come back to visit this patient almost every week and we have developed a bond. In those early weeks, she would be reading a book every time I visited – she loved to read about the news and history. Our conversations evolved into something almost resembling a book club, with her explaining the intriguing knowledge she had gleaned from her book that week. It was immensely gratifying for me when she began to recognize me by name every time I visited. Nowadays, she is declining and is no longer able to muster the energy to read. Her breathing has become more labored and speaking requires a greater effort from her. As a result, I have begun to take greater initiative in sustaining the conversation.
This whole experience has been immensely rewarding for me because of the personal bond I have been able to form with this patient – a bond spanning generational and cultural gaps. I have learned much about her life history – a story that is full of both hardship and global adventure – and I like to think that she has learned more about me as well. As I look into the future, this experience will inform my interactions with others and has ingrained within me the notion that each and every individual has a unique and compelling life story. People are more than the sum of their current state of being. Even in the dying process, they have life goals, wishes, and dreams. This experience has also supplemented my clinical knowledge and highlighted the changes we, as a society, need in geriatric medicine – changes that these patients deserve. But most of all, this patient has taught me more than I could ever express in mere words. Through her amazing life experiences and life advice, she has taught me how to live with honor. And in the kindness and compassion she has shown me and others in the hospice program, she has shown me how to die with dignity.