Elderly share stories at the of end of life

Story and photo by Alicia Williams

  • Watch a slide show of Tina Chavez telling her favorite story (best viewed in full screen mode).
  • Editor’s note: Tina Chavez passed away Dec. 22, a little over a month after this interview was given.

Stories told by the elderly express memories collected over a lifetime and filled with loving moments, tragic and monumental events and the valuable lessons learned through mistakes and successes. Sharing these stories offers undeniable joy, especially to individuals who have a preciously short amount of time left in their life.

Tina Chavez at her home in West Jordan, Utah.

Evidence of the truthfulness of this shines in the ailing face of Augustina “Tina” Chavez, 71, as she recounts the memories of her beloved home in Las Cruces, N.M. It’s one of her many treasured stories recently published in a book for future generations to cherish.

“Where I come from, Las Cruces, it’s nothing but desert, dry heat, and the skies are always blue. There’s no pollution and the sun is 103 degrees in the summer. It’s warm and it’s beautiful,” Chavez said in a strained whisper as she tries to be heard above the soft whirling hum of a machine tucked neatly beside her recliner.

Chavez has been physically bound to her home in West Jordan and to the dialysis machine helping to keep her alive since her kidneys began to fail in 2004. While Chavez admits to desperately missing her Catholic Church back home, she said God brought a wonderful blessing into her life when she moved to Utah in 2007.

“When you’re an active person like I was, and then all of a sudden it stops just this quick. You can’t walk, you can’t move and the only thing you have left is God and the angels he sends,” Chavez said. “The people who come to visit me, I call them my angels, because they are angels, angels unaware, because God is telling me I am not alone.”

She is referring to the people associated with LifePath Home Health, Hospice & Family Care. Located in several major cities across Utah, the in-home medical service is offered to terminally-ill patients diagnosed with six months or less to live.

The patient receives visits from doctors and registered nurses to address medical health issues, and licensed clinical social workers to manage the needs of the family. There are bereavement specialists to help with grief, certified nurse assistants to address a patient’s personal care and chaplaincy for spiritual needs. Finally, hospice volunteers befriend and support patients during the last days of their life.

Hospice support consists of patient companionship, respite care for family caregivers, oral histories, yard and house work and all types of therapy: pet, music, massage and aroma. Shannon Thompson, the volunteer coordinator at LifePath Hospice, said she draws upon her 25-plus years of experience to complete the daunting process of locating qualified volunteers, training them in end-of-life care and then diligently matching them with an individual in need of comfort.

“The hospice program is extremely important, because it’s a setting in which someone is willing, from the heart, to give, listen and participate in what an individual is going through or what an individual needs,” Thompson said. “The support is freely given from a volunteer to share that life, those moments, and the end with an individual who is ultimately going to pass.”

For Tina Chavez, Thompson expertly chose Brady Petersen, a 23-year-old pre-med student studying exercise physiology at the University of Utah. Peterson said he learned of LifePath at the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center on campus and began volunteering a year and half ago.

“It’s been a blessing, because they send me visitors once a week like Brady. When Brady first came, he wanted to know a little bit about me and I just started talking,” Chavez said. “He asked me if I minded if he wrote a book about the interesting stories I had been telling him.”

Volunteers who seek knowledge from the experiences of the elderly find a unique opportunity to actually feel the lessons being taught.

“You do gain a lot from them when they are talking about their lives. They have a different attitude about life, and the important things in life,” Petersen said.

At the same time, whenever someone engages the elderly in sharing their stories, and when they take the time to listen to them, they’re validating the worthiness of that individual’s life experiences.

“It’s usually takes a visit or two and then it doesn’t feel like I’m volunteering anymore. It doesn’t feel like I am working, it’s just visiting with a person who really appreciates your time,” Petersen said.

The inspiration to write Chavez’s life story, or oral history, came to Petersen after his initial visit with her. She was down, emotionally, but he said he noticed a drastic change once she began talking about the stories of her past.

Completely absorbed in her storytelling, Chavez becomes animated and descriptive. At one point, she beautifully sings a song in Spanish, stopping intermittently to translate it into English. At times she laughs; at other times she cries, but the clear sparkle in her eyes signifies the overwhelming pride she holds in the precious memories of her life.

“Brady told me I have wonderful stories and I told him that’s my life, the stories. I’ve had a good life,” Chavez said.