A few years ago, The Village of Erin Meadows shifted its approach to the loss of a resident. For the longest time in the long-term care sector, death was a subject to be hidden from view, supposedly in the hopes of protecting other residents from the reality of their own mortality. But as the shift to more person-centred support caught on, the team at Erin Meadows realized they could do more to honour the last bit of dignity a person could have in this world after passing to the next.
A person came in the front door to make The Village their home, team members understood, and they should leave through the front doors as well, afforded all the respect and dignity in death they deserved throughout their life.
And so began the tradtion of the dignity walks, though for the longest time, few residents took part. Team members would line Main Street to offer their respects as a deceased resident was taken away draped in a dignity blanket, but Sujeeva Muthulingam, interim coordinator for Trafalgar and Dundas neighbourhoods, recalls other residents asking to be notified of when a dignity walk would occur so they could avoid it.
“They didn’t feel comfortable watching their neighbours go,” Sujeeva says while sitting in the library off Main Street, “and I respected their wishes.”
But last fall, something changed when Antonio, a resident from Dundas, passed away. He was one of those residents who was always moving around the village in his power wheelchair, visiting with his fellow residents.
It was breakfast time when the funeral home arrived for Antonio and like she’d always done, Sujeeva quietly went to the dining room to close the door and let the residents she serves know what had happened.
All the team members gathered for the dignity walk but on this day, as Antonio was carefully ushered from his home, the dining room doors opened and his fellow residents lined Main Street as well.
“I thought, well, that is something new and it was so lovely,” Sujeeva says. “It really brought tears to my eyes. We talk about a culture change journey and yes, the team members are on board, but as part of our journey we are doing the dignity walks, and now even the residents are catching on to it.”
Antonio was the beginning of this shift. A week later, after the passing of another resident, the same thing happened. Sujeeva wasn’t there that day, but afterwards this resident’s son called and left a message asking to speak with her.
She admits to being worried that something had gone wrong, but when she returned his call and offered her sincere condolences and sympathy, he thanked her and told her what an amazing experience it was when his father was ushered out the front door under the wrapping of the dignity blanket. Team members and residents lined the street, he said, bowing their heads and offering their own personal farewells. It made a difficult time a little easier to bear.
In order to make positive changes in the Village everyone must be on board, and Sujeeva sees the dignity walk as a true indicator that the values of team members and residents alike reflect the type of Village people want to live and work in.
“ ‘This is a person and a life to be honoured,’ ” a resident later told Sujeeva, reflecting on the dignity walks. “Just listening to that I know now that it’s not just the team, but also the residents who are embarking on this culture change journey.”