08:21 PM

Creating moments of connection

Carrying only a ukulele and a few songbooks, Chaplain Heidi makes her way to the memory care unit at one of several assisted living facilities in the Flathead Valley. As she enters the family room of the unit, faces light up and wheelchairs are moved closer. Chaplain Heidi gets things started with a few tunes from yesteryear. What may look like a normal group sing-along is in fact much more.

Each of these patients struggles with remembering events or facts. In some cases, they are completely unresponsive.

“It is easy to assume that patients struggling with dementia are largely in their own world and unreachable, however I have been inspired to seek ways to enter their reality and make a connection,” says Chaplain Heidi, part of the team at Home Options Hospice that works to provide a high quality of life for those in their senior years.

Alzheimer’s can be a devastating disease, both for the family and for the person afflicted. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Facts and Figures report, almost half of all American seniors aged 85 and older suffer from Alzheimer’s. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

“Patients have an amazing response to feelings and the related memories,” says Chaplain Heidi. “One of the most effective ways of making a connection is to bring something to a visit for them to experience or interact with. For example, music often has a way of reaching into their feelings and awakens their past to bring about a powerful spiritual connection.”

If a patient’s mind is stuck living primarily in their young adulthood, familiar hymns or old folk songs may connect best. If a chaplain can identify that the patient is largely reliving their childhood, songs like “Jesus Loves Me” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” can bring a spark of recognition and joy to their eyes.

“The music is often remembered and connected with on a heart level, while the mind may still be struggling for bearings,” says Chaplain Heidi. “I have worked with hospice patients with families in the room that later tell me that our interaction was the most they have connected with their loved one in years. It is extremely meaningful, both to the family and for me professionally.”

As she strives to find a way to spiritually connect with hospice patients, Chaplain Heidi will often bring in flowers for patients to touch and smell or tasty baked goods that can also help patients connect with a warm memory.

While Chaplain Heidi’s approach has been influenced by several books, conferences and trainings, she found the book “Creating Moments of Joy” by Jolene Brackey to be most valuable. The book urges caregivers and family members to look beyond the challenges of Alzheimer’s and dementia to focus on creating a moment of connection and experience that can bring happiness to both the caregiver and the patient.

“Creating these experiences to share is also disarming and can assist in helping hospice patients feel connected with his or her visitor,” says Chaplain Heidi. “I have also learned that it is far better to honor their current reality than to waste time striving to correct facts. It is far more effective to focus on sharing words of reassurance and comfort.”

For more information on Home Options Hospice and their approach to caring for your loved one, call (406) 751-4200.

Written By Dustin R. Jones

This article was originally published in November 2019 issue of Montana Woman.