Sunday, May 26, 2013

End-of-Life Humor: Hospice Caregiver, Dementia Patient Balloon Story

It’s a boy! No, Miss Ruby didn’t give birth at age 89. But, like all her room visitors, she thought her balloon message was hilarious!

What does this have to do with quality end-of-life care? Contrary to what some people think, many terminally ill patients continue to maintain a comic state of mind and often initiate and enjoy participating in humorous activities. Sometimes the humor is unintentional, but the energy is just as exciting. That has definitely been my experience as a hospice volunteer.

I’m a balloon lover. My favorites are Mylar foil balloons with special shapes, themes, and messages. Many of my patients with dementia enjoy balloons as much as I do. Funny scenarios have often resulted after I brought them balloons. This true story came about after I offered to get a seasonal spring balloon in a flowered shape for Miss Robinson, a patient with Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia. But she decided she preferred a green balloon instead. This heart-warming balloon adventure followed.

Excerpt from my book Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes:

Miss Robinson was very emphatic about choosing a green balloon. She couldn’t explain why the color green meant so much to her, except to say it was her favorite color. The party-supply store had many flowered balloons, but green ones were scarce. After a lengthy search with my help, the salesperson found one green balloon in the entire store. Later that week, I brought the balloon to Miss Robinson, tied it to her wheelchair, and took her for an indoor ride around the nursing home to show it off.

“Look, everybody! Look at my red balloon! Did you ever see a red balloon this pretty? It’s my red spring balloon! Hey, everybody, look at me! I’ve got my own red balloon!” she exclaimed.

A few days later, I visited Miss Robinson. Her balloon hovered over her bed like a shiny green pit bull on guard. She could enjoy watching it bobbing around doing its doggie dance and even talk to it if she felt lonely.

“Hi, Miss Robinson. Do you remember who I am?” I asked, giving her a little memory test.

“Sure, I remember you. You’re the hat lady who brought me my purple flag. See, it’s still waving in the air. I just love my purple flag!”

I smiled, thinking of the evolving green balloon that had developed a life of its own. In less than two weeks, it had evolved at three different levels with hidden powers I hadn’t known. It was enough to have gone from a green to red balloon. Now, it had become a purple flag. I couldn’t wait to visit Miss Robinson again before the balloon deflated completely. I looked forward to hearing more about her happy adventure with the green balloon and its miraculous makeovers. 

© Frances Shani Parker

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble .


  1. AnonymousMay 27, 2013

    I absolutely love this story!

  2. AnonymousMay 28, 2013

    It's really not about what's right or "accurate". This made this woman very happy and that's a wonderful thing. DB from Mass.

  3. Anonymous 1, I'm glad you love the balloon story.

    Anonymous 2, you are so right. As long as no one was being harmed, I found that going along with Miss Robinson's fantasy was far more interesting and enjoyable to both of us. Imagine how boring the balloon would have been if it had simply stayed green. What I have found important is to let the person with dementia guide the fantasy. Depending on the their degree of dementia, they might "see through" and resist a manipulative fantasy created by someone else.

  4. AnonymousMay 29, 2013

    Hi Frances. I'm sure working with dementia is a challenge in itself. I really like this balloon story. It shows good self-awareness, flexibility and understanding towards the patient. I wish you all the best for your book.



  5. Thanks, Valerie. I wish you the best on your journey through life.

  6. Ronee HensonMay 31, 2013

    Oh Frances, what a delightful, positive story!!
    There are many ways to bring joy and laughter and good memories to our friends in Hospice care.
    I have used music, which might bring memories of their past, and stuffed animals and baby dolls, with happy effects.
    Will try balloons next!
    Thank you! Ronee

  7. Ronee, it sounds like you are having a ball coming up with ways to enhance quality of life for your "hospice friends." The best part is that it's all win-win. Keep up the good work!