Life lessons from a dying man
In my last post I made reference to an old man who made a lasting impression on my life. His name was Arnold and I met him as he came to the end of his life, suffering from dementia.
Following the comments that I have received on Reddit and Twitter I thought I would follow it up with another post about the group of individuals that I worked with whilst undertaking voluntary work at a local hospital.
The reason for the voluntary work was that I was applying to go to university and course entry required that you participated in 300 hours of voluntary work. To meet the requirements I spent the summer working a local hospital by day and a soup kitchen at night.
I was a little apprehensive when I started my first day at the hospital; I knew that I would be spending half of my time with those suffering from dementia, and the rest of the time with stroke victims – two sets of people that I had never had dealings with in my life.
I began my shift on the ward with the dementia patients, and was overwhelmed with what I found; ranging from their early 40s to their late 80s they wandered around, lost in their own world. I was first confronted by a woman who was no more than 40, crying and screaming as she cradled her head in her arms. I asked why she was so upset and was told that she was going though the transition between controlling her thoughts and losing them altogether. It was a sobering thought, that someone relatively young could suffer from something you associate with much older people.
It was on my first day that I met Arnold. He was one of the older characters in the room and one of the quietest. I spent the majority of my time sat with him, in silence. At times he would recognise me and make a comment about the weather, but would quickly forget where he was and stop speaking.
One of the patients who would sit near Arnold, a woman in her late 80s, would just hold herself and rock backwards and forwards. She often mumbled to herself and periodically scream out. I sat and listened to her and it was evident that she was reliving childhood memories – traumatic ones. Her father had apparently abused her as a girl, and it was his name that she would scream, to stop touching her, to stop hurting her.
Another of the patients was not happy with me being in the room. He would take the arm off his wheelchair and wield it as a gun, commanding that I leave the room, telling me that Nazis were not allowed near the women – I found out that as a soldier in the war he had witnessed the murder of countless people, including many women and children.
I may refer to them as ‘patients’, but they were people: mothers, father, brothers, sisters. Those that were reliving the past may have been distressing, but they were a reminder that these people had a history. Dementia wasn’t what defined them, but for many it would blur their legacy.
If you haven’t read the previous blog I will just fill you in on a few facts:
Relatives would visit the ward and many would find the experience very trying; people that they had relied on and still loved dearly did not recognise them. Even crueller was when fleeting moments came that they did say the right name, to then forget seconds later – Arnold’s son was not able to cope well with this.
After he got angry with his father and walked out of the ward I sat with Arnold for around 30 minutes. After that time he turned his head and looked at me and said the words: ‘Never live your life with regrets’. As I mentioned previously, the words haunted me, as he was telling me something that he so desperately wished someone had told him. Arnold died shortly after, but his words have stayed with me.
Everything I witnessed has stayed with me. From the woman reliving her abuse, the former soldier and the young women entering a world of darkness. If you ever get the chance to volunteer then I’d recommend doing so, and you will no doubt take something away from it that you might not have expected to. Life is fleeting.
I mentioned that I also worked with those recovering from strokes and also a soup kitchen, but those stories are for another day.