When I See The Flags

After spending the last week- eight hours or more a day- with someone who is actively dying, my heart would always race right before I would turn down the hall towards their room.  Anticipating the flags to be standing proudly at the entryway of their room.

All nursing home facilities react to a resident’s death differently.  When I found out how the VA Hospital’s CLC treats their resident’s deaths, I thought it was a beautiful idea.  I hope that all of the CLC’s do the same as mine does, because it means so much to the other residents and their families, the volunteers, and the staff.

Since the CLC strives to be a family setting, rather than a scary traditional nursing home, the residents become friends.  They spend time together in the common area, as residents can go only in their own room.  The residents all can tell when someone has taken a turn for the worse.  They notice everything.  When someone is about to pass, the residents are allowed to go in their friend’s room to say a few words.

It pulls at the heart strings when I see a 90 year old resident wheel himself into another room to say goodbye to his fellow service member.

When a resident passes, the CLC stands two flags on either side of their door.  One side is the USA flag, and the other is the branch they were in while serving in our military.  I have turned the corner into hallways many times hoping to see the flags- and in the same breath- hoping not to see the flags.  Unfortunately, sometimes it can take a while for the body to shut down, and it seems that it takes too long for my friends to feel peace again.  When you witness suffering of any kind, it will create empathy that you will carry forever.  The peace I am talking about is not only physical, but also emotional.

When I do see the flags, I have had different emotions- happiness, reflection, warmth, and selfishness.

Why selfishness?  Well, in some cases I wasn’t ready to lose my friend yet!  The lovely namesake of this blog is a great example of this.  The day he passed, he was smiling and giggling at jokes.   I was happy for him to be out of pain when I saw his flags, but sad to lose a sweet friend.

The flags guard their door for several days.

A memorial service is given once a month for the residents who have passed since the last.  The Chaplin comes every Thursday for Bible studies/religious services, and one is reserved for the memorial service.  The services are always packed- the residents always come, family, staff, and volunteers.

The flags are also displayed at the service.  At the end of the memorial service, the Chaplin asks if anyone would like to say a few words about the deceased.  The best comment was when a resident said that the he always thought it was kind of the deceased to share his Marine magazines with him.  It was sweet because both men were known to be crank pots.

Items I Take to the CLC

Yesterday, someone asked me what I take with me when I sit with someone who is actively dying.  During these days, I go in their room in the morning and leave in the late evening.  It makes for a long day, but a worthwhile and appreciated day.

If you become a volunteer/work within nursing homes or find yourself as a caregiver to someone in palliative care, I highly recommend reading “Final Gifts”, by Maggie Callanan and “Dying Well”, by Ira Byock, M.D. These two books are wonderful resources, and I will add more to my recommended readings list as I finish more books.  I don’t recommend books if I haven’t personally read them.

I really dislike the term “sitting with” when referring to volunteering in this capacity.  When I am introduced to the residents, it is the beginning of a respectful relationship.  I become a friend, someone they count on to visit, someone they can vent to if frustrated by their surroundings, and much more.  I see it more as accompanying them to the next part of their journey.

Once they are considered to be actively dying, the nursing staff usually calls to let me know just in case I wasn’t going to visit for a few more days.  I bring my backpack filled with all kinds of things, some for me-some for my friend.

  • Bottles of water (the place I visit only has soda in the vending machine for visitors- not good)
  • Several books to read (I tend to go back and forth between several during the day)
  • Crossword puzzles (One friend would do the puzzles with me.  When he was at the end of life, he could still hear me and I would call out what I was looking for on the puzzle.)
  • Fruit cut up in a container, homemade meal-replacers from my kitchen, and roasted chickpeas (I follow a plant-based diet)
  • Cell phone with the charger with an extra long cord 
  • Ipod (I listen to music on my walk to the facility, and I have my favorite upbeat song that makes me smile when I hear it- I listen to that right before I walk in the facility.)
  • Change for vending (if you decide to use the vending machine, also remember it may not take dollar bills)
  • My own hand sanitizing gel that I keep in my pocket. (Of course, they also have it on the wall of every room.)

I dress in layers, as the rooms can get stuffy, warm, or even chilly if the thermostat freezes.  I have residents who want the heat on 98 degrees, and those who want it cool around 68 degrees because it helped them breathe easier.

I always talk about music with each resident I am paired with, as it is something that lifts everyone up when listening to a favorite group.  I have the Pandora music app on my phone, and I play their favorite genre while I am there.  Sometimes the background noise of the facility can be unnerving and aggravating, so I will put on their station softly next to their head.  The extra long charger cord helps in this situation, as the outlet could be too far away.   I also paid for the yearly subscription for Pandora, so the commercials wouldn’t startle them.

That is pretty much what I bring into the rooms with me when I visit during someone’s end of life.  I will post soon on what I do during those hours, and what happens after they pass.

They are always happy and thankful to have someone beside them, so please do not be nervous.