When people reach the point of dying in aged care facilities, they have usually been living there for some time. Very few people are admitted and then die in a few days. Likewise sudden death is relatively uncommon. We expect people to die! The only place in an aged care facility where death is not generally expected is the dementia unit. Of course, some people do die in the unit but mostly they die in hospital level care. My experience is that staff members are often really quite shocked when death occurs in the dementia unit and that has been borne out by my research where people have spoken about it in my interviews. So these are people we have got to know. The staff will frequently have far more contact with them than their family members because they are the ones who have the day to day, hands on care.
Some families visit a lot and we all get to know them well – some are difficult and demeaning and we wish we didn’t know them quite as well! Others visit infrequently and seem quite hesitant about being with their family member. Some complain a lot, others ask lots of questions, some seem almost hostile and others very shy about talking with staff. It is not our role to judge. These people have known their family members for much longer than we have – they are guardians of the history, so to speak. Sometimes the dying person will have been very difficult and caused lots of problems – there may even be family divisions and some family members who don’t speak to each other. It is important that we don’t judge – we are there to offer pastoral help and support. Of course, some family members are unsure about what to do with the clergy and they hasten to explain that they are not religious but mum or dad was!
So when we enter the room where someone is dying, a whole lot of things are going on, not only for the person who is the centre of attention but for the family members – some who feel very uncomfortable about being in this situation and for the staff who have cared for the dying person and continue to care but who may feel somewhat edged out by the family. Emotions are all over the place.
The question which confronts us today is “How do we deal with this situation?” First of all, we need to recognise that we can’t fix what’s happening and has happened over the years. We may know the dying patient well but we don’t necessarily know the family history and I have come to recognise that that can be quite helpful.
So . . . we arrive and may well be confronted by a roomful of relatives – some maybe hostile others so relieved to see us that they just about fall over themselves. Be prepared for anything. Others have dealt with ministering to the person who is dying – my concern in this presentation is to speak about ministering to the family. Be sure that you identify yourself – I always wear a clerical collar and that means that I am readily identified. There will usually be 2 one person who speaks on behalf of everyone – address that person and everyone else and simply say that you are here for them as well as for their relative. You are bound to get their Church going – or non-Church going history – it’s a bit like vicars I knew when I was growing up – especially if Mum or Dad is a Christian. That can be amusing but also very helpful – it’s a good starting point for conversation. Sometimes, they will say “I’m not religious – but mum/dad is” another starting point. Or even the opposite – “We are Christians but we are unsure about mum/dad”. Now, often mum or dad has been coming to one of our 2 Church services and I have had a lot to do with them or they are always pleased to see me. Talk about the positives. Address their questions – talk them through. Be open and honest. I think it’s important that we don’t overstay our welcome. Talk things through. I will often say “I’d like to pray with your mum/dad – if that’s okay with you” usually people want that. Then I leave –telling them I will be back and they can contact me at any time and I will be there. I need to add that here I have supreme advantage over many chaplains because I live on site! Make sure that your promises are realistic and you can follow through on them. I find that usually people want me to come back. I often leave it a few hours and then pop in again. I give them my card and tell them that if they want to talk about anything I am available for them at any time. Often they do follow up and want to talk after the death of their loved one. My card has my qualifications.