A picture says a thousand words.

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When we have end-of-life or frail care guests, we always ask the family to send us photos of the guest prior to their illness or old age. We do this because we want to see the full picture of their lives and to better understand the whole story of which we are now a part in the final chapter.

Last week I was sitting with a guest and went through some of her photos of her 80th birthday party. It was great for me and my staff to see her while she was vibrant and strong. People choose different ways to spend their last months. This precious lady has decided to not see any friends or acquaintances while she waits her cancer out. She only sees her children and therefore by default, my team and I have become very close to her. I am a close confidant to her, and she is the keeper of many of my secrets. Going through her pictures opened up a conversation I have never been able to have with her. We chatted about how she used to be, and how she is now. We giggled as I told her after seeing the photos that I had thought she was taller. I have never seen her upright, and now, months after I met her, I got to see her in the photographs, standing proud, in a pale blue shirt with her two children by her side. Might I add, her son and daughter towered over her. Not what I expected.  Without any self-pity she told me about the party, the special three cakes she ordered, the food that was served, who got to sit at her table and the people she would have preferred at her table. We could talk about the “good old times” when she was weight-bearing and totally independent. There is an honesty that comes with nearing the end of your life that brings a new kind of humour and clarity. You do not need to filter out the rawness of these moments; you can openly mourn what you miss and what you have lost.

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I also like to encourage guests to have pictures in their room unless it upsets them. This week I almost collapsed laughing with a guest when she showed me photos of her trip to Paris. I have only known her as a terribly frail and underweight woman. In her photo on the Champs-Elysees she is sporting an impressive bosom, chubby cheeks and voluptuous thighs. She laughs with me, agreeing that she clearly did not skip many meals in her life. In times like this, vanity is not important. She tells me about her trip, she tells me about the man she was with and how she misses him. We are both reminded of who she was, of how much she has lost and how significant it is that by her determination, she is still here. It is a celebration of her bravery and her courage; a life well lived through thick and thin (If you’ll excuse the pun).

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This week we also have a woman almost exactly my age to the day. She is not with us for recovery or even respite. She is with me for end-of-life care. She is desperately ill, and after taking one look at her you know this. Her partner shows me photos of her this last Christmas, looking gorgeous in a Santa hat with a glass of wine, ready to face 2022. We know she will not be here this Christmas. After seeing photos of her on the golf course, I see glimpses of the determined sportswoman in the way she is fighting her cancer. She still smiles at me when I tease her whilst brushing her hair and calling her an over-achiever. She is not impressing people with her golf handicap these days, but she is blowing my mind by the fact that she is still taking breath after breath, long after others would have stopped.

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We are so lucky to have these conversations and to be able to be a snapshot in the full picture of these guests stories. Each photo we see reminds us that all this is temporary and that just like those photos fade, we do too. We need to embrace the moment in full colour, right here and right now.

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