I waited outside the room until the rehab therapists finished talking to Jim, who’d been admitted to the nursing home the night before. I read over the basic info on his face sheet before my consult. Jim was an 87-year old widower with a long list of diagnoses, some very serious.
After a moment, the rehab people left and I sat across from him and introduced myself and explained my role as the psychologist.
“How are you handling all of this stress?” I asked.
“I’m dying,” he replied.
“You don’t think you’ve got much time left?”
“Does that upset you?”
“No, not particularly.”
He seemed quite calm.
“Are you sleeping okay? Eating okay?” I proceeded to ask him all the questions I’m supposed to ask patients I meet for the first time. “What kind of work did you do?”
He quietly answered them all. After a while there was a knock on the door and his physician poked her head into the room. “Just give me a minute. I’ll finish up,” I assured her, and turned back to Jim.
“It’s one of us right after the other, isn’t it?” I commented. “Let’s stop here today and I’ll come back next week to see how you’re doing.”
He gave me a funny look and half-shrugged. The doctor knocked again and I rose to leave.
It wasn’t until I returned to work the following week, when I learned Jim had died, that I realized his look meant, “I told you. I’m dying. I won’t be here next week.”
In hindsight, I wished I’d asked Jim more specifically what he meant when he said he was dying. People sometimes make remarks like that to me in their first few days in the nursing home without meaning that they’re in the active dying process. If I’d realized I wouldn’t have more time with Jim, I would have abandoned my standard questions and focused more on being present with him.
I was even more distressed that Jim had spent his last day fielding interviews from well-meaning staff members determined to provide good care. He was patient and kind about it. I’m guessing he was a really pleasant man, maybe too nice for his own good. That might have been something we could have worked on in psychotherapy.
If I knew I was dying, I wouldn’t want to spend my last day answering the questions of strangers trying to provide services I knew I wouldn’t be around to receive. I hope I’d be more assertive than Jim about refusing care, but there must be a way to offer a better experience for a dying person than having to rely on their level of assertiveness when ill and faced with medical routines. Perhaps we could establish a “last day” protocol.