Technology, A Smartphone and Final Conversations in a Nursing Home

My mother passed away three days ago at the age of 92.  She spent her last eight months in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair following a fall that left her unable to stand or walk.  She had very little sight, was legally blind and, like many her age, suffered from dementia.  But this is not a sad story.  Rather it's one of wonder and unexpected transformation, a gift to both her and her family.

All her life my mother was driven by anxiety, fear and a deep distrust that coloured everything.  There was a harsh edge to all that she did.  Why that was so doesn't matter; it's what happened over these past eight months that's important.

Her first two months at the nursing home were difficult.  She was recovering from surgery, she didn't interact, didn't participate, and cried a lot.  But the care was excellent, the staff kind and supportive, and she slowly settled in.  But visiting wasn't easy.  She remained flat, negative and despondent.  And what to say, what to do?  Push the wheelchair around the facility?  Ask if she enjoyed breakfast or lunch?  Time passed slowly.  Conversation was bland, lacking any real meaning.

And then we hit on something that made a difference.  We started using my smartphone.  It started out simply enough.  A phone call to people she could no longer visit.  A few pictures to send to her friends and family.  From there we moved on to short video messages.  She found it enjoyable and became animated and energized as we talked about who she wanted to phone or do a video for.  It turned out she liked being "on camera".

 Talking to her sister in England

Talking to her sister in England

The Internet got us to the next level.  Anything I thought she might be interested in we used the phone to search for information.  We learnt a lot about red foxes and sandhill cranes.  And we listened to the sounds they make on YouTube videos.  She was fascinated.  And she thought that having access to anything you want to know in just a heartbeat is magic...which of course it is.  Those first searches on foxes and cranes became a turning point.  She would think about what she'd heard and would often talk about it the next day.  And she'd think of other things she wanted to know about for the next visit.

My mother loved birds, always fed them, and knew a fair bit about them.  She certainly knew a lot of their calls.  There are many bird apps for a phone.  In addition to pictures of each species, these apps have recordings of birds singing and calling.  When we talked about any bird we then listened to the sounds.  Once when we were sitting outside she heard a red-winged blackbird.  When we played the call on the phone the bird answered back.  She was delighted - clapped her hands, laughed, and said "do it again".  We sat out there talking to that red-winged blackbird for fifteen minutes.  After that, she would remind me to be sure to bring that "gizmo" (my phone) with me when I came. 

 Red-winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird

Memory loss and dementia are strange things.  As with most older people, my mother's long-term memory was somewhat intact.  When she would talk about something that happened long ago - her memories from the war, or from her first job at fifteen - we would look it up.  That company she went to work for in Hull, England, was established in 1840 and there was a ton of information on the Internet about it:  its history, social justice philosophy, products, and manufacturing sites.  She couldn't see the pictures but when I read the street address of its main site she remembered going there.  And she remembered some of the products - Brasso, Dettol - from her days on the assembly line.  It pleased her to hear that the owner had a strong sense of responsibility towards his employees.  From there we found a blog called "150 Facts About Hull", her home town.  As I read them they were real to her; she could take in the information because she knew the place, she'd grown up there.

On some days the dementia was dominant.  She would talk about places she'd just gone to on the bus, towns in England that she'd visited, a wide variety of stories.  It didn't matter if these "events" weren't real.  We'd still look them up and often, to my surprise, these places did exist and some of what she'd described - the Cathedral in the town of Beverley - were right there on my phone.

We found pictures of the house she grew up in all those years ago.  And so much more.  And through the "magic" of that smartphone we were able to have interesting and meaningful conversations, something that just wasn't there before.  Sometimes, when it was time for me to leave, instead of being sad she would ask me to take her back to her room because she "had lots to think about".  It was lovely.

During the last six months of her life she became calmer, happier, and more content than I'd ever seen her.  The anger and harshness was replaced with an appreciation and gratitude for what she did have at this late stage of her life.  Her conversations were no longer bitter.  She expressed love for her family, and thanks and appreciation to the staff for their care and kindness.  She was liked by the staff and the residents and I believe she found her place there.

 

 Enjoying a laugh with another resident

Enjoying a laugh with another resident

I had a troubled relationship with my mother.  The time we spent together in the nursing home helped us both.  With the assistance of today's technology we did find things to talk about.  We were able to have meaningful conversations which enabled our connection to deepen.  We could both finally see the other.  The day before she passed I was holding one of her hands in both of mine.  She slowly took her other hand out from under the covers, put it towards me with her palm up and hand gently closed and said, "I have a gift for you".  What is it Mum?"  "All my love", she said,  "and I really mean it."

She passed peacefully.  She simply stopped breathing.  She had said the day before that she felt she might be close to the end.  I asked if she was afraid or had concerns.  She said no, none at all.  And then she added that if she did go we were not to be upset.  She'd had a long, full life and was ready to leave.  And that was another gift.

To be with someone at the end of their life is a privilege.  Meaningful conversations draw us closer together, they are important and are worth striving for.  But it's not always easy to find things to talk about.  My cell phone turned that around for me and my mother.  We all have cell phones.  How else might we use them to enrich our time with others?