As a hospice social worker, people often say to me, “I could never do what you do.” I usually respond that there are a great many jobs I would be ill suited for — school bus driver and computer programmer are two that readily come to mind.
Still, their words remind me that I am so fortunate to have found work that calls my name, and seems to use many of my inherent strengths.
Contrary to being depressing, as many seem to think, I find my work hopeful and inspiring as I witness the profound and tender ways our patients are often cared for through their final days.
I am reminded of an elderly spouse caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s in their home. She would dress him each day in pressed khakis and plaid shirt, his belt buckle displaying the U.S. Navy insignia honoring his World War II service, and they would go to McDonald’s for coffee and cookies each afternoon.
The effort was significant — up and down the stairs, in and out of the car and the restaurant — but she believed that he benefited from these outings: a bit of fresh air, a change of venue, a midday treat and the feeling that he was still a part of the larger world.
Another patient comes to mind — a middle-aged woman with early onset Alzheimer’s, living in a personal care home. She had lost her ability to speak, to smile and to make eye contact. Her husband visited twice each day to feed her, patiently encouraging her with each bite, taking an hour or more for this challenging task.
Last Christmas when the facility’s staff put up their tree, a worker confided in me that the husband had hung envelopes with each caregiver’s name on its branches, with crisp $100 bills tucked inside, as tokens of gratitude for the attentive and gentle care this small facility provided his wife.
When I began my hospice career more than seven years ago, one of my first patients was a woman who no longer claimed connections with anyone in her family. Living out her final days in an assisted living facility, our team members were her only visitors. Soft-spoken and private, she never shared the stories that had led to this isolation.
Upon her passing, the administrator and facility caregivers held a memorial service attended by her co-residents, their staff and our hospice team. There was music, cake, flowers, stories and photos as this quiet, humble life was remembered, honored and celebrated by those who had come to care.
There are many more stories I could tell. My work brings me face to face with acts of such quiet heroism. I witness professional caregivers, family members and friends mindfully, creatively, tirelessly infusing dignity and meaning into patients’ final days.
While every major world religion identifies caring for the sick and dying as a basic value central to their beliefs, it is work that is frequently undervalued and underpaid. And it is hard. Professional caregivers may frequently encounter needs beyond their abilities to fill. Family caregivers are often isolated and exhausted as their days and nights revolve around their loved one’s growing needs, bewildering roles and their own grief.
And yet each morning, they begin again. Their humble, noble efforts are nothing less than the work of the human heart. Indeed, when Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things. Only small things with great love,” I think she had caregivers in mind.
This article originally appeared in Everyday Compassion magazine. To browse full issues of the magazine, click here.