Mother’s Dementia – A Health Care Worker Hears Her Son’s Pain

Thought provoking is a good way to describe my first day at Tanenbaum. Lynn Stoller, our Health Care Program Associate was scheduled to deliver a Grand Rounds at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn.  Lynn spoke to a full house – over 80 people from the departments of medicine, pastoral counseling, social care, and nursing – about the importance of religio-cultural respect and competence in health care.

One particular case study from the presentation stood out to me. This story was about a Hindu man who brought his elderly mother, who suffered from dementia, to the hospital. He requested that his mother receive only vegetarian meals, but when he arrived at the hospital the next day he found her eating a meatball. She was a devout Hindu and that was the first time she had ever eaten meat. The man was upset and asked to speak to both the hospital’s nutritionist and the patient advocate. The nutritionist said that while she was sorry the mix-up had happened, it was the result of basic human error and she couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again. This position, while reasonable, did not make the patient’s son any less angry. It wasn’t until the patient advocate apologized and seemed to understand the depth of the son’s concerns that he calmed down. The son then said that seeing his mother eat the meatball was so upsetting, not just because it was a religious violation, but because it was a harsh reminder that his mother’s health had deteriorated to the point that she could no longer recognize the values that had once meant so much to her.

I heard many of the doctors at Woodhull murmuring to each other when this story was told. I think this example stood out to members of the audience for the same reason it stood out to me: it seems to embody so much of what respect for religion in health care entails. Neither hospital employee could correct the mistake that was made, but by acknowledging the depth of the son’s concerns instead of dismissing them, the patient advocate was able to alleviate his anger. She also understood that his anger was partially caused by his pain that his mother’s dementia had caused her to forget her beliefs. This employee was able to make a bad situation better by treating both the patient and her son with respect.

After Tanenbaum’s presentation I spoke to Dr. Susan Grossman, the program director in charge of medicine at Woodhull. Dr. Grossman said that she had wanted Tanenbaum to present on religious diversity because it was important for all hospital workers, and particularly residents, to think about religio-cultural competence in relation to their own lives and how they treat their patients. She said that “when the discussion of religion is done with sensitivity, it is a more satisfying experience for patients.” I thought the story of the Hindu man and his mother was an example of the importance of treating patients’ religion with sensitivity, and it was an important lesson to be reminded of on my first day at Tanenbaum.
 

Eliza Blanchard
Project Assistant
Workplace and Health Care