Nov 22, 2023

Final passing words: the importance of sound for dying loved ones

Greta's childhood was idyllic as she soon adapted to the Australian way of life, although she did miss her friends, the mountains and snow at Christmas time. [Source: Shutterstock]

I recently cared for a German woman diagnosed with dementia, originally from a small village called Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany.

She came to Australia shortly after the war with her parents and younger sister. At the tender age of six, Greta found the excitement of a new world enthralling; going to the beach on days that were not holidays felt like a holiday every day. The family settled in the same area as several other German and Austrian families in the small coastal town of Gerringong, New South Wales.

Greta’s childhood was idyllic as she soon adapted to the Australian way of life, although she did miss her friends, the mountains and snow at Christmas time.

Greta worked hard at school and won a scholarship to study languages at University; it was at University that she met Frank and fell in love with her soul mate for life. Frank’s parents were also originally from Austria, soon finding they shared many like-minded interests. They married soon after graduating and had two daughters, Anya and Erika, and a son, Kurt.

Greta worked part-time as a German teacher at a local school; she loved sharing her language and the lifestyle of her beloved homeland. Soon after she retired, Frank was killed in a road accident when he was days away from retiring from his accountancy position. 

Greta’s life changed dramatically; her two daughters had married and moved away, one to New Zealand and the other to Perth. Kurt travelled and lived overseas most of the time; life for Greta revolved around the memories she and Frank had created during their married life. 

Over the years, the family had returned to Bavaria for holidays, and it was there that Greta’s mind returned for most of the day, reliving the short childhood memories she had left behind.

After being diagnosed with dementia at eighty, life became even more difficult in a confusing world of forgetfulness and her bewildered perception of reality. 

One day, Greta had a fall at home, unable to get up and call for help; it was two days and two nights on a cold floor until the postman heard the sad cries for help and alerted the emergency services. 

The ambulance took her to the nearest hospital; the trauma of the fall and being left alone on the floor had a lasting effect on her mental state of mind. Greta came to live in the dementia unit for around-the-clock care where I worked.

Staff quickly learnt how to care for Greta, her likes and dislikes, and her huge smile and matching appetite for food, especially cake. She soon settled in and found friendships with several other ladies in the facility.

I would find all sorts of German memorabilia and share stories of my family trips to Germany, bringing her homeland to life whenever I could with photographs, videos, books and objects of German origin, such as music boxes and a German clock.

The clock gave Greta particular pleasure, reminiscing about the dedication and work her father had placed on mending many timepieces. Greta’s thoughts returned to her childhood; the timeslip gave her solace and peace of mind.

When I greeted her, I would say, “Ich Liebe Dich Mein schöner Freund”, which translates to “I love you, my beautiful friend”. Her eyes would light up, reaching her arms out for a hug and repeating the phrase several times.

In the absence of family and friends, keeping Greta’s Germanic traditions alive gave her the pleasure, reassurance and confidence she desperately needed to fulfil her unmet needs.

Now, as she reaches her end-of-life phase and has become palliative, she is restful and pain-free, sleeping most of the time, with moments of awareness when her eyes would open to see who was there.

A few nights back, I was sitting by her bedside, holding her hand, whispering, “Ich Liebe Dich Mein Schöner Freund”. Her eyes opened, looking at me and giving me the biggest smile before falling asleep again. 

Greta’s cultural diversity spanned the continents that played a significant role in who she was and where she was from, never forgetting her homeland and heritage until the end of her life. Greta passed away peacefully during the night with the vision of her beautiful family and the Fatherland on her mind.

It is a medical fact that the last of our senses to fade away when dying is hearing; that is why it is so important to talk to our loved ones in the final stages of their life, sending them off with love and joyful sounds.

* All names are fictitious to protect their privacy.

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