Journal of Gerontological Nursing

Endnotes Free

Healing Hearts: Honoring the Lives of Older Adults

Karyn Therrien, MSN, RN, CDP

Nurses are healers in many ways. We not only heal in the medical sense of the word, but on an emotional and spiritual level as well. As a novice nurse, I believed the most important thing I needed to acquire to be a good nurse was excellent clinical skills. Although being competent and proficient in the clinical setting is a necessary aspect of the nursing profession, our patients still need so much more from us.

I have always believed emotional healing to be my primary task as a healer. I personally think this is the greatest role nurses play. Yes, we dispense medications and provide various treatments, but the way we support patients emotionally is how I believe we truly heal them. This is true in any clinical setting.

In my role as a Nursing Supervisor in a long-term care facility, I came to understand a different way of healing as I learned to appreciate the end of life's journey. The transition from being an emergency department nurse to working with long-term care residents was not an easy one. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, I learned many things in the long-term care setting, including a whole new meaning of honoring life. Honoring the lives of my residents included not only the lives they led in the past, but their present life and the precious time they have left on their journey to death.

Achterberg (1990) said that honoring life is the essence of the healing arts. To honor life is also to honor death, to appreciate the richness of existence, and to know that many paths lead to wholeness. I could not agree with this more.

Whenever I would enter residents' rooms and see paintings or drawings, or photographs of a young happy couple, it would help me relate with their past life before their arrival at the long-term care facility. Aging robs older adults of many things, but it is important to remember that they were once young, active, and functioning members of society. They were once sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, just like those of us who have not yet reached old age, each with their own unique gifts they brought to the world.

We live in a culture that all too often devalues older adults. As nurses, we need to see past their limitations and truly listen to them. They are the historians of a past we never knew. Their life experiences and wisdom are staggering. Their stories are spellbinding.

While working with older adults as a Nursing Supervisor, I had the good fortune of getting to know two special residents well. These two women, Lily and Helen (pseudonyms), were best friends. They lived independently in their own apartments, but dined together, and spent all their time together. Lily would read to Helen each afternoon in the library in a quiet corner. Helen could no longer see well enough to read. These two women never married, never had children, and had no family left. Essentially, all they had in the world was each other.

One day Lily was sent to the hospital for a bowel obstruction. During her hospitalization it was discovered that she had a large abdominal mass with metastatic cancer. Because of her age and medical condition, Lily decided not to do anything about the cancer. Upon her return from the hospital, she was admitted to the sub-acute unit to be kept comfortable until her death. A few weeks later, Helen fell and fractured her pelvis. After her discharge from the hospital, she also was admitted to the sub-acute unit.

Unfortunately, the two women were on separate wings of the unit, with two different nurses. During report one morning I was told by one nurse that Lily required more morphine, was on oxygen, and was experiencing some shortness of breath. The other nurse reported that Helen was not opening her mouth to take food and she thought Helen was giving up on life. I asked both nurses if they knew that Lily and Helen were best friends, which they did not, and told them of their special relationship and how much each of them could benefit from seeing one another. The nurses agreed to start bringing Helen to Lily's room to visit.

Sometimes being a healer is about doing simple things to make another person feel better emotionally. Bringing these two women back together was not going to cure Lily's cancer or heal Helen's fracture, or stop any of their physical pain, but this helped heal them on an emotional level. It made them feel not so alone and cheered them up in some small way. Both women are now deceased, but I like to think they are still together in heaven, and Lily is reading to her best friend Helen, in a quiet corner.

As nurses, we step into so many people's lives, and sometimes we are able to heal them and change them. Healing does not have to be only in the medical sense of the word. Sometimes healing is kind words, a hand to hold, sharing our own personal experiences, respecting spiritual beliefs, or simply validating their feelings and letting them know you care.

We all have certain patients who remain in our hearts and in our minds. That is what keeps us coming back to work each day. As nurses we should take time to step back and reflect upon the patients who have come into our lives and healed and changed us.

Karyn Therrien, MSN, RN, CDP
Jefferson House, Hartford Hospital
Newington, Connecticut


  • Achterberg, J. (1990). Woman as healer. Shambhala.

The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.


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