My Dad’s Death, Part I

  • Aug 09, 2018 -
  • Tom Neal PhD
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My father died of complications related to dementia on April 10th of this year.  He was 88 years old.  Having received my stepmother’s permission, in the weeks ahead I will share some personal details from that experience that I hope will encourage and empower members of the Aging with Dignity community network to discover some of the many often hidden blessings at the end of life.

Having worked with AWD as a faith and ethics consultant for the last ten years, I have thought long and hard about end-of-life questions, which profoundly affected my experience of accompanying my father and family into the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). Not only was I aware of the medical and legal challenges that face families at life’s end, but – far more important to me – I was made sensitive to the richly complex human dimensions of death and dying.

As my father’s dementia rapidly progressed this last Spring, my stepmother found an Alzheimer’s and dementia care facility, Briarcliffe Gardens Memory Care Assisted Living in Johnston, Rhode Island, that supported the minimal use of sedating drugs and the maximal use of personalized therapies, carefully discerned palliative care, and the “redirecting of patients with loving arms.” Their philosophy, driven by a vision of the dignity of patients and their families, was based on the belief that all involved are best served by allowing patients as much alertness, freedom and mobility as possible. And this, unquestionably, made all the difference with my Dad.

I was totally overwhelmed by the patient skill of the Briarcliffe employees, by their love and gentleness in dealing with each resident, as well as with the families and friends who came to visit.  By cultivating an environment at once professional and familial, the best of health care and compassionate care joined hands.  This life-affirming environment allowed me and my family to closely accompany my father in the last weeks of his life.  It allowed us to share intimate and painful conversations about life’s most important topics, including gratitude, love, forgiveness, grief, and all in the context of a shared faith.  In short, Briarcliffe Gardens embodied so much of what Aging with Dignity and Five Wishes stands for.  It was the first time I did not just understand this, but felt it viscerally in my guts.

This is why I believe so passionately in the mission of Aging with Dignity.  It exists to empower a culture of hope and love, honoring the end of life as a privileged opportunity to protect and promote human dignity at its most vulnerable.  It also exists to encourage an open, loving and collaborative accompaniment between health care professionals and the families, friends and faith communities of the dying – all of whom have an essential role to play.

I shared my appreciation with one of the owners of Briarcliffe.  She said, “You know, our parents suffered from dementia and gradual decline and we weren’t happy with the care they received.  So we decided to make a difference, putting love and dignity at the center of health care.”

Part II

Tom Neal, Ph.D, is Aging with Dignity Faith & Ethics Advisor