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Hospice care team remembers quiet grace, gentle spirit of Gray Prior

Gray Prior made people happy with her ready laugh and gentle spirit. On her best days, when she was feeling strong and alert, she could sing back the lyrics to “You Are My Sunshine.”

It was a strategic song choice by her HopeHealth nurse case manager.

“As she declined, she would sing less and less of the song until she would just sing the last word of the line,” says Katie Vilardo, RN.

You make me happy when skies are gray.

Gray did not speak very many words. But she would do her best to sing the most meaningful one to her — her own name — from “You Are My Sunshine” each time Katie visited her at the Jepson Lane Group Home in Middletown. Gray had lived at the home operated by the James L. Maher Center since 2005. She had been diagnosed as a child with leukodystrophy, a rare genetic neurological disorder that limited her mobility and spoken language ability.

Staff and residents at the group home were Gray’s second family, as protective of her as her own parents. Staff member Kathie Mathias drew a portrait of Gray in her floral comfy chair in her room in colored pencil. It remains on display with about a dozen other individual portraits of residents at the group home.

Woman with dark hair gently kisses baby doll
Gray Prior kisses a baby doll in September 2018.

Compassionate care families trust

Jepson Lane staff members also came to trust that HopeHealth would be there whenever they called. When Gray’s health started to decline, the Priors turned to HopeHealth for our compassionate care and experience in coordinating end-of-life services in a way that would support Gray. They also supported her family’s wishes to preserve her quality of life. HopeHealth worked hand in hand with her Jepson Lane family, helping them to understand the natural progression of her illness.

Gray passed away at the group home on February 1, 2021, at the age of 53.

“It was always our plan – and our hope – that our daughter, Gray, would spend her final days in her home,” said her father, The Rev. J. Gregory Prior. “HopeHealth’s coordinated care made that possible. This was an incredible comfort to our family, truly a gift.”

Woman in dark floral pajamas is tucked into bed with purple stuffed animal unicorn.
Gray Prior is shown in December 2020 at the Jepson Lane Group Home in Middletown. She received a purple unicorn as a gift from her HopeHealth Case Manager Katie Villardo, RN.

‘She was a sweet, sweet angel’

One of Gray’s HopeHealth care team members or volunteers went to see Gray every day. Sometimes, Katie would give her manicures. Sometimes they would just sit and be together while Katie did her charting.

“She was a sweet, sweet angel,” Katie says.

Gray’s regular visitors also included HopeHealth Chaplain Denis Lynch who provided her spiritual support. But Gray also seems to have done the same for him.

“In her quiet way, she reminded us all about the most important part of our work – to honor every patient’s humanity,” Denis says.

“My singing isn’t the best, but she brought out the best in everyone.”

Denis says he doesn’t sing for many people. For Gray, though, he made an exception.

“My singing isn’t the best, but she brought out the best in everyone,” Denis adds.

Hospice Aide Erika Small-Joseph, CNA, CHPNA, often sang and prayed with Gray when they were together. Erika would often ask Gray about her little pet fish Charlie and Gray would repeat Charlie’s name.

“She wasn’t fussy about anything,” Erika says of Gray. “She was just gracious.”

African-American woman who is a hospice aide on left and woman who is a hospice patient in a wheelchair is on right
HopeHealth hospice aide Erika Small-Joseph, CNA, CHPNA, with her patient Gray Prior.

Gray’s family held a small memorial service for her in the spring. Her Jepson Lane family has also come together to remember the sweet-natured woman whose name matched the color of her salt and pepper hair. Gray spoke volumes with her expressive blue eyes.

Her eyes asked you to be present with her no matter what the sky looked like overhead. They asked you to let in the joy. They gave you the power to oblige.

How have you experienced hope under our care? Did a HopeHealth caregiver touch the life of you or your family? We’d love to hear from if you would like to share your story. Email Information@HopeHealthCo.org.

Learn more about how HopeHealth hospice services can help you.


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