When your spouse becomes your caregiver

After Michael Draper was diagnosed with a rare brain disease, his husband retired to take care of him full-time

Terry Wicks, left, and Michael Draper

By DAVID TAFFET

Michael Draper describes the condition he’s been dealing with for seven years as a “designer disease.” His husband, Terry Wicks, said that when they finally received a diagnoses, “the bottom dropped out of our world.”

Draper went almost two years before receiving a diagnosis of MSA — multiple system atrophy — a progressive neurodegenerative brain disorder that results in death.

Wicks has become his full-time caregiver.

MSA is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease, but it seems to be more related to other diseases like PSP and Alzheimer’s characterized by a build up of certain proteins in the brain. Wicks explained that with MSA, the proteins needed to transmit signals from one cell to another seem to crumple and block transmission. As that happens, brain cells die.

Functions that are automatic — maintaining body temperature, swallowing, breathing, eliminating waste — stop working. Speech is affected. Muscle coordination deteriorates. The person with MSA becomes unable to take care of himself.

In 2013, the couple was living in California. Draper was an executive with Yahoo. Wicks was an MRI technician.

Wicks remembers asking his husband one day, “Why are you so clumsy lately?”

After a year of a variety of symptoms presenting themselves and several doctors unable to diagnose what was wrong, they went to Stanford for a diagnosis. After almost a year of visits, their doctor told them that she was waiting for one more symptom to appear. When it did, she confirmed MSA.

Symptoms appear when a person is in his or her 50s. Draper was 52 when they first recognized something was wrong. Those manifestations progress for five to 10 years.

New drugs are being tried to halt progression, but Wicks said his husband’s condition was too advanced for the medications to work. And because it takes so long to diagnose, most people have progressed beyond the point where these medications will help.

Four years ago, both men had to stop working. Draper was unable to work any longer so Wicks, who’s seven years older, retired to take care of him.

They decided to move back to Dallas to be closer to family. Their doctor at Stanford told them Dallas was a perfect choice because a colleague of hers had recently opened an MSA clinic at UT Southwestern, so Draper would receive top medical care.

Wicks made a trip by himself and purchased a house in Garland. He said it was the only time in their 29 years together that he had bought a house without his husband.

Wicks describes himself as a planner. So before leaving, he had planned what they needed in a house. He found one in Garland that fit his needs — a 1980s one-story ranch without any stairs or steep inclines that could be outfitted for their needs.

Among the work needed on the house was a complete bathroom redo. They replaced the tub with a walk-in shower fitted with a large tiled seat and an entrance without a step so that a wheelchair can roll in.

Because someone with MSA eventually has trouble turning around, Wicks found something he calls a pivot disk, sort of a lazy susan for people. From his wheelchair, Draper can stand and Wicks rotates him 180 degrees so he can sit in the shower or on the toilet.

Wicks said a person who needs this level of care loses all personal dignity and they’ve worked to keep Draper as independent as possible as long as possible. When he couldn’t brush his own teeth with a regular brush, they got an electric toothbrush.

Draper joked that he could still use a razor as long as his husband didn’t mind seeing him with slash marks all over his face. An electric razor allows him to continue shaving himself for now.

While they still are able to make a trip to the hair salon to get his hair cut, their hairdresser said he’d come to house once he can’t get out any longer.

Until recently, Draper had been using mostly a walker. Lately, he’s less able to make it around the house that way, and he’s begun relying more on his wheelchair.

Over the last few weeks, Wicks said he’s also begun having to use a catheter in order to urinate.

Draper said he feels guilty that he’s putting his husband through this, but Wicks wouldn’t have it any other way.

To help them deal with their situation, they go to support groups. Spouses taking care of their spouses compare, commiserate and share. That’s how he learned about the pivot disk. Those with the rare disorder that may affect only about 15,000 Americans don’t feel as alone when they get together.

Wicks is also careful about caregiver fatigue. Draper’s parents will take care of him for a week while Wicks takes a trip to the Seattle area where the couple lived for a number of years to help decide if after his husband’s death, he wants to move back there.

Draper encouraged his husband to take the trip. This way, he can participate in making future plans even if he won’t share them himself. He wants to know his husband will be all right and will return to having a life beyond caregiving.

Wicks said he still is able to leave Draper alone for an hour to run out to the store for groceries. As Draper’s condition deteriorates, Wicks said he’ll have to hire someone to come into the house to relieve him so he can do errands.

Caregiving that includes everything from personal care to doing all of the housework is a full-time job, Wicks explained.

“Unless you’ve done it, you have no idea how much it entails,” he said.

In addition to the physical labor, caregiving involves stress. Wicks described what he’s going through as anticipatory grief. Most people don’t grieve until their spouse is gone, and Draper has already outlived original projections for his life expectancy with MSA.

Wicks doesn’t know if the grieving he’s going through now — imagining what life will be like without his husband — will facilitate the grief he’ll feel after his husband’s death or if he’ll experience the loss he’s expecting all over again.

But that anticipatory grief also propels him to make the best life he can for both of them. Draper still has his sense of humor even as communicating grows more difficult. But as they look at each other and tell their story wishing it was headed toward a different ending, there’s a contentment and bliss in their just being together.

Complete Article HERE!

Hospice Physician B.J. Miller: ‘Life is Not a Fight Against Death’

As executive director of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, BJ Miller has helped pioneer the field of palliative care.

By Jim Parker

Hospice and palliative care physician Bruce (B.J.) Miller has made it his mission to help people “live well in the face of death.”

A hospice and palliative care physician at the University of California Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and former executive director of the Zen Hospice Project, Miller speaks nationally about end-of-life care, including the benefits of hospice and palliative care, and was featured in the Netflix documentary short film, End Game.

His new book, A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, co-authored with journalist Shoshana Berger, is designed to educate the public about the options and obstacles that patients and families encounter at the end of life.

Miller’s has experienced palliative medicine both as a clinician and as a patient. An accident during his college years resulted in the amputation of one arm below the elbow and both legs below the knees.

“Part of the reason that I wound up becoming a doctor is that I came close to death in my own life, earlier than expected and in a dramatic enough way that I had little choice but to sit up and take notice,” Miller wrote in the book.

Miller spoke with Hospice News about perceptions of death in our society and its influence on patients’ choices, including hospice election, how patients should be cared for at the end of life, as well as the policy, practical and financial considerations that can impact that care.

“Hospice is a business too, and is affected by the same mundane staffing issues as any other: Illness, vacations, car trouble. The difference here is that a long wait for a bad latte will never be comparable to a late nursing visit when you are in desperate need for help,” Miller and Berger wrote in the book. “The hospice system is a part of our stressed health care system and that means it is stressed too. Burnout and turnover are significant problems across the industry; meanwhile, training programs struggle to impart the sort of knowledge and grizzled experience that good patient care requires.”

Regarding your book, A Beginner’s Guide to the End, what factors led you to decide that a resource like this was needed?

Being a clinician working in the hospice and palliative care space, I see patient after patient and family after family languish and suffer due to lack of information. This is certainly true anywhere in health care, but especially in our field because our explicit mission is to ease suffering. And this has proven very tricky. Most people don’t know what palliative care is. Many people know what hospice is, but they have so many misunderstandings of it.

I felt there was a need to get a general book out there to cover the waterfront, the hope being that essentially that we could raise the floor. We are not going to blow off the ceiling, but at least we can raise the floor and level the playing field so most everybody has some access to sound, up-to-date information. That was the impulse.

At several points in the book it’s mentioned that there is a kind of taboo around the topic of death. How do you think that influences people’s choices at the end of life, including electing hospice?

Our language gives us away. We have this old-fashioned notion that life is a fight against death, as though death were a foreign invader instead of a natural thing that is completely entwined with life.

We talk about death as a failure. In medicine we say, “He failed treatment.” That they “lost the battle,” and so forth. So we find all these exotic ways to keep the subject at a distance, and in daily life it has become easier and easier to become distracted from this. And it means that so many people wait way too long to elect hospice. And if they do enter hospice at all, it’s often in the final days where there is not much time to do all that we can to bring life to a close and provide some comfort.

Even beyond the election of hospice I think if we built awareness of our mortality into our daily lives, my guess is that we’d be much kinder to ourselves and to each other and much more appreciative of the life we have while we have it.

How do you see the hospice and palliative landscape changing? How you think the space could be different five years from now?

My hope would be that medical training in general absorbs the principles of hospice and palliative medicine and drives this kind of care earlier into the picture. Just about any clinician of any stripe should have some kind of basic facility with these concepts — eventually 100% of their patients are going to die.

My hope is that our workforce grows to meet the rising demand, and that payment gets worked out so people are incentivized to pursue careers in this important field. From a policy standpoint, hopefully there will be some legislation passed promoting training for hospice and palliative care.

I do think we in the field also really have to take quality seriously. We used to be able to just absorb the idea — it was just a fact that hospice in particular provided superior quality care as a medical model — and that’s still largely true. But we have to be careful, it’s not just about getting more people into the field; we have to keep our eyes on quality.

Do you think that current payment models for hospice, in particular the Medicare Hospice Benefit, are copacetic with the mission of providing multidisciplinary person-centered care in accordance with patients’ goals and wishes for end of life?

I think in general the hospice benefit does a very good job. I think its sticking points are the requirement that patients have six months or less to live and the idea of all the things that you can’t do while you are on hospice.

Those things made sense in 1982, but they don’t make much sense anymore. For example there are a ton of treatments that might be considered life extending that are actually palliative in nature. I see a lot of patients who are fully aware of all these trade offs and forestall their hospice election because they want access to certain treatments that could maybe help them live longer but also could make them feel better.

So those two sticking points are ripe to be revisited. Otherwise I think the hospice benefit is very sound, but I wonder how much longer the hospice benefit will look like the hospice benefit of today.

How do you feel about a possible Medicare Advantage carve-in for hospice?

I am not a policy expert, and there may be some counter arguments. but I wonder what the unintended consequences of that would be.

Right now Medicare sets the guidelines, and therefore there is a centralized power and policy hub. In sending the hospice benefit to private companies, will Medicare Advantage plans be allowed to dictate their own hospice benefit? If so, I have to imagine quality would go down due to cost-cutting measures which ultimately would also be quality-cutting measures.

You have spoken about how the health care system has diseases rather than people at its center. Do you think that is starting to change and how can the health care community accelerate that change?

I believe it’s starting to change in that the phrase “patient-centered care” is pretty well known and recognized, and I don’t hear anyone arguing against patient-centered care. So I think there’s an opening dialogue around it.

But I also watch some of my medical colleagues roll their eyes at it, and for good reason: Our population, health, and disease and treatments are so complex that it’s practically impossible for patients to make an informed decision, because we haven’t done a very good job of educating them. So it’s unrealistic to say that we can do whatever the patient wants.

What it is realistic is a shared decision-making model in which your clinician is your advocate and together you are working on a plan that’s realistic for the options in front of you, and together you make decisions. I think that’s the golden chalice we are trying to find.

A good example is that if you were to follow patient satisfaction surveys — if those were the gold standard of a patient-centered system — data show that patients prefer doctors who prescribe more medications because that feels like their doctor cares, but more medications is not always the best clinical choice.

That’s a case in point where it’s much more complicated than the satisfaction of the patient or the family, so I think the refinement here is to elevate the patient’s voice in the decision-making process and do the listening on our side as clinicians and encourage patients to speak up for what’s important to them, and together move forward. That is how things should work.

One of the most pervasive barriers to bringing patients into palliative care and hospice is awareness. Most people simply don’t know what these things are. What can hospice and palliative care providers do to move the needle on that issue?

No one seems to understand the difference between hospice and palliative care, and I wonder what policy could come along to help smooth out these false divides. I keep waiting for someone to organize a kind of mass public service announcement, explaining to the public what the solutions are and explaining the field.

As a clinician I am explaining the distinctions to people all the time, and I struggle to do it in a succinct manner; so I think that you need some real communications expertise. It’s a very tricky and complicated communications challenge to distinguish between these concepts in a way that is understandable and relatable, especially when for a lot of people it’s inborn to want to look away.

I would love to see some sort of mass public communication effort. That would go very far even among the health care community. Many of my doctor and nurse colleagues themselves couldn’t tell you the difference between hospice and palliative care. That is very common, so we have a massive communications problem that will take a multimillion dollar effort to get past.

You have spoken about the need to bring intention and creativity into dying. Where does hospice fit into that?

Dying is way bigger than a medical event. Hospice begins with a conversation about what is important to the patient and what is not important to them, and just the nature of that conversation helps people to live with intention.

You help and encourage them to think through what is important, what can they live with, what can they live with, coming to terms with the finitude of their time, and then you can work from there and to some level design your days. Hospice facilitates those conversations all the time.

I think the creative spark is a way of life, a way of thinking in which daily life is a creative act, including at the end of life. We are all improvising all the time, bobbing and weaving, checking our plans versus the reality on the ground. Creativity often flows from reaction to limitations, and this is our limitation: We don’t have endless time.

Complete Article HERE!

Scared of death?

An end-of-life coach might be the answer

By

You may be familiar with birth doulas. These coaches, or “birth companions” assist pregnant women through the delivery of their child and postpartum recovery. They’re not OBGYNs, but they are highly trained in how to offer emotional and physical support and guidance to a mother.

Sound nice? Plenty of moms-to-be think so, and the doula movement has been growing steadily over the past couple of years. Now people on the other side of the life spectrum can contact doulas as well to quell fears about dying and ease their transition.

In order to decide if an end-of-life doula is right for you, it’s first important to understand what exactly they are, and what they’re not.

First off: The preferred term is, in fact, end-of-life doula, rather than “death doula.” Death doula admittedly has an intriguingly spooky, cultish air about it, but it tends to perpetuate negative misinformation about the role, like the idea that these doulas assist in administering lethal injections. And in order to bring awareness to any movement or group, it helps to consistently use the same terms.

To find out more, Considerable spoke with Deanna Cochran, founder of Quality of Life Care and one of the founding directors of the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance

“I’ve been doing this since 2005, before there was a death-positive movement at all,” Cochran said. “What was going on was a scattering around the world … I found them when I began blogging in 2006 as a private end-of-life doula.

“I thought I was going to cause a scene doing what I was doing … I wanted everyone to know that you can have this medicine, these treatments, this therapy long before you’re sent to hospice. Nobody wants to admit they’re dying, but then people have miserable experiences dying because they’re not getting palliative care.

So what exactly is an end-of-life doula, and how are they different from, say, a hospice nurse or in-home caregiver?

Cochran described an end-of-life doula as “a person who accompanies another through dying and death — holistic, nonmedical, practical support.”

Doulas don’t exist separately from hospice care. In many cases, end-of-life doulas work in conjunction with hospices to provide an overarching holistic experience.

“End-of-life doulas accompany hospice,” Cochran explained. “Hospice is fantastic, but the problem is they don’t have the kind of time that might be needed. Nurses can’t stay with a patient for hours and hours — sometimes the hospice would like more support for the patient but the hospice doesn’t always have the volunteers available.”

“[Think of a doula] kind of like a firefighter; the doulas understand that you never know when vigils or a high-need situation is going to happen, and they’re willing to go out there in the crisis situations. Hospice volunteers are not expected to tend to crises; they’ve planned their volunteer schedule. The doula team is that kind of team within hospice.

“We’re like mediators or advocates; we’re not advocating for the family against the system — we’re advocating for the family and the system.”

In many ways, doulas act as a bridge between the other care services end-of-life patients will receive. 

“Information gets lost between nursing home, hospital, and rehab. Medications get lost along the way, people aren’t getting informed, so a doula can make sure everyone’s informed all along the way,” Cochran said. “At death the [hospice care] team is gone; bereavement is a new team. But a doula is entered into the system before death, during, and after, during bereavement. They offer an extra layer of support not just for the family, but for the hospice team. Extra expertise, extra training, and they know their place alongside hospice. It’s not a different agenda.”

Doulas are trained to assist both the dying patient and their loved ones through all stages of death, something that most hospitals and hospices don’t supply. They have to be incredibly empathetic and ready to jump in with an appropriate care response in all manner of situations.

“[Doulas] have to be OK being a witness and not a savior; a companion, not a leader. They have to come in with curiosity, not a plan. They have to be very self-aware,” Cochran told Considerable.

Death and the dying process is a sensitive, tricky subject, and some misconceptions about end-of-life doulas have arisen as a result. Doulas are often referred to as spiritual, and their approach to help and healing has spiritual elements. “Spiritual is a term that especially means vastly different things to different people, and some patients may feel concerned by that definition.

“Doulas are not trying to replace the [hospice] chaplins by providing spiritual care. Just by being present, that’s spiritually supportive,” Cochran explained.

And, especially importantly: “We are not euthanizers! There was an ugly article insinuating that death doulas ‘do the final thing’ … Absolutely not. That has nothing to do with us. We would never be responsible for the final medication in any assisted death. That’s not our role.”

Cochran also mentioned that doulas are especially important these days because the way we die has changed. 

“We’re living with chronic illnesses for a long time. Modern marvels are promising to keep us alive; we’ve never died like this before, of course people are scared.”

By becoming aware of the dying process sooner, and as medical science keeps terminally ill patients alive for longer than these diseases used to allow, patients have more time to contemplate death and face the reality of what the end of their life will entail.

“In advanced illness, everyone in the care system is focusing on life, even in the face of dying,” Cochran said. “Let’s start having gentle, realistic conversations that this train isn’t going backwards. Let’s focus on excellent symptom management and care for the whole family to support you as best as possible and not traumatize you through a system that’s trying to turn you around when you’re not going to.”

To find out more about end-of-life doulas, and where to find one in your area, check out NEDA’s website.

Complete Article HERE!

When the future is running out, narrating the past helps to prepare

By Dhruv Khullar

How should you live when you know you’re going to die?

It is perhaps the ultimate, eternal question — one we all have to grapple with, but mercifully, don’t have to, until the end is crystallized by our own illness or that of a loved one. Humans may be the only animal capable of grasping mortality, but it’s usually not something on our minds — until it is.

It’s a question I confront frequently as a physician caring for seriously ill patients. One morning some months ago, I met an older man with an aggressive cancer that had turned an avid runner into a voracious reader. He glanced up from his newspaper as I entered the hospital room.

“It’s [a] strange feeling, you know, reading about a world you’ll never get to see.”

After several rounds of chemotherapy — each more toxic than the last — he decided he had had enough. He could go long stretches without contemplating death, he said, until the sight of a far-off date or curiosity about some newly proposed legislation would bring into sharp focus the unavoidable reality: His days were limited.

“I mostly read biographies now,” he told me. “Reading about other lives helps me make sense of my own.”

I began to wonder whether the secret to a good death wasn’t looking forward, but peering backward — whether retrospective examination might be more therapeutic than prospective preparation. I thought of how often I’d focused solely on helping patients navigate the future: how many weeks or months of life they might expect, which procedures they should or shouldn’t consider. These discussions, while important, fail to address what research has revealed about the deeper wants and needs of seriously ill patients.

Nearly 20 years ago, a seminal study in the Journal of the American Medical Association explored what patients and doctors feel is most important at the end of life. Many responses were predictable and consistent across groups. Both doctors and patients, for example, thought it was important to maintain dignity, control pain and other symptoms, and have one’s financial affairs in order.

But where physicians and patients diverged is telling — and suggests both a missed opportunity and a path to progress.

Patients were far more likely to express that it was important to feel that their life was complete, to be at peace with God and to help others in some way.

In other words, to feel that their lives mattered.

A growing body of work suggests that a powerful but underused method of creating this sense of mattering is storytelling — reflecting on the past and creating a narrative of one’s life, what it has meant, who you’ve become and why.

Humans are natural story­tellers. We have tremendous power to frame a narrative. The same series of events — becoming a parent, getting a divorce, losing a loved one, finding a job — can be a tale of resilience and restoration or misfortune and regret. The process of bringing coherence to one’s life story is what psychologist Dan McAdams calls creating a “narrative identity.” People get better at identifying important life themes as they age, and those who are able to find the positive amid the negative are generally more satisfied with life.

Physicians are also storytellers by profession. But we’ve traditionally focused on narrating the course of disease instead of helping patients make sense of their lives with it. Creating opportunities for patients to reflect on life experiences, however, could offer an important avenue for healing — whether at the end of life or somewhere in the middle.

In a 2018 study, researchers assigned veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to engage in either five 30-minute writing sessions in which they reflected on traumatic experiences, or a rigorous 12-week program of cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a first-line treatment for PTSD. The study found that the short writing sessions were just as effective at reducing PTSD symptoms as the resource-intensive CPT program.

Other work suggests that the particulars of storytelling matter. Simply looking back and listing life events doesn’t seem to help. It is the constructing of a narrative — exploring linkages, formulating a plotline — that’s critical for arriving at a coherent sense of self.

And even the pronouns seem to matter.

Using the first-, second- or third-person when reflecting on past experiences can each have strategic advantages. Using the third-person, for example, seems to allow us to better appreciate how we’ve changed over time, while the first-person primes us to look for continuity. Reflecting on challenges by using the generic “you” — “you win some, you lose some” or “what can you do?” — can help create psychological distance from a tough situation and universalize the experience. “I” makes the focus your response; “you” tethers it to the human condition.

When the future is running out, can we make more of the past? I often struggle with my role as a caregiver for patients at the end of life. I know the most healing things I can offer aren’t the things I usually do: pain medications, laxatives, intravenous fluids. Rather, they are at once more challenging and more elementary. To sit. To listen. To explore what it’s all meant.

“I tell myself,” my patient said. “Even if I won’t be around to see it, I helped shape the world of the future. At least my little part of it.”

Complete Article HERE!

End of Life Mitzvahs

by Rabbi Ron Isaacs

In recent months, I read a very powerful piece in The New York Times that detailed the last day in the life of President George H. W. Bush. It described how in the last week of the president’s life he had stopped eating and was mostly sleeping.

His longtime friend and colleague, James Baker visited him frequently in his last days, and was there when he passed away. Baker described how, at the end, he held Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet.

The former president died in his home, surrounded by several friends, family members, doctors and a minister. As the end neared, his son George W. Bush, also a former president, who was at his own home in Dallas, Texas, was put on speaker phone to say goodbye.

He told his father that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you too,” Bush told his son. And those were his final words.

Bush’s doctor described how everyone present knelt around the president and placed their hands on him and prayed for him. It was a very graceful and gentle death, accompanied by loved ones who gathered in the intimacy of his home in Houston.

For almost four years now, I have been privileged to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities and private homes to sing and play music for people in hospice under the title of my role as “Chords of Comfort.” I also make visits as a hospice chaplain.

On some days, my patients are alert and able to converse with me. On others, they lie in bed unable to speak and sometimes sleep.

On such occasions, I sit by their bedside and just keep them company. Sometimes a family member or two is present when I visit.

Several years ago when I arrived to visit a certain patient, I was surprised to find members of her family singing and playing guitar while the patient, who could not speak, moved her head rhythmically back and forth.

One of her youngest grandchildren had flown all the way from San Francisco, Calif. to New Jersey just to sing for her great grandmother. It was obvious that the singing and playing brought great comfort and pleasure to her.

When the family asked me to join in with my guitar, it became clear to me that we all were feeling spiritually uplifted by the beautiful music that we created together.

There is a rabbi who directs a Jewish-end-of-life care/hospice volunteer program. As part of his training program, the rabbi asks the volunteers to reflect on a moment when they were in need of someone to be present for them.

One man related the story of his bicycle accident when a stranger sat silently with him on the curb until the ambulance arrived. Another volunteer described how her grandmother sat knitting in the corner of the hospital’s delivery room throughout her three-day-long labor.

What both of these stories have in common is the power of someone simply being present for another person.

Chaplaincy – spiritual care – is all about accompanying another person while being fully present. It is all about trying to ensure that there will be times during the day when a patient is not left alone and has someone by their side.

Even when someone’s life is transitioning, healing of spirit is possible until the very last breath. It is especially at these times when our very presence can raise their spirits, which not only benefits them, but also us.

Being present and ensuring that no one is left alone is an incredible act of kindness and a supreme act of holiness. In the Jewish faith, it is considered a “mitzvah,” a religious obligation. 

I hope that you will consider ways that you can help reduce isolation for those who are alone and provide them with “accompaniment.” Let us continue to find ways to be fully present for members of our own family and for those in the wider community who will benefit from our companionship and just “being there for them.”

Perhaps you may wish to consider committing to one specific act of accompaniment each month that will lift the heart and brighten the spirit of someone else – and probably do the same for us.

Complete Article HERE!

My Odd Job: I help people live a good life, up until their last breath

By Anna Lyons

Most people know what a birth doula is, but not many have heard of an end of life doula.

Sometimes we’re called death doulas, death midwives, end of life companions or soul midwives. While a birth doula provides support and guidance to mothers at the start of life, an end of life doula provides practical and emotional support at life’s end.

Often I’m called in at diagnosis when there’s an element of disbelief and panic but sometimes it’s at the last minute when someone is actively dying. Their needs can change, too – someone who doesn’t require much support in the beginning can need a lot more assistance as their illness progresses.

No two days are ever the same. One day I might be going to hospital appointments with someone I’m working with or advocating on their behalf with their medical team. Another day I might be helping children say goodbye to their mum or dad. Some days I’ll be attending funerals.

There’s a very practical side to my job. I might help someone write an Advance Directive, a will or a do not resuscitate order (DNR), and help anyone thinking about appointing a lasting power of attorney.

Disbelief often accompanies a life-limiting diagnosis. Often, in the stiflingly small consultant’s office, any words spoken after a devastating prognosis fall onto ears that are powerless to hear any more. I take extensive notes in consultants’ appointments because I know my clients will be too distressed to process it all.

One client I worked with had an amazing medical team, an incredibly supportive and present family and a big group of friends.

She contacted me because she needed someone to offload to without making her amazing support network feel inadequate or unappreciated. She wanted someone she didn’t feel she had to protect from the harsh realities of her illness and her feelings about it.

They never knew she’d sought extra help. I only found out she’d died from an online obituary.

Yet some people don’t have family and friends who can help them, or who can’t take time off from jobs that pay the bills.

Illness can also drive our friends and family away. These losses can be isolating and frightening at a time when you most need company and reassurance.

At 17, I found myself standing at the graveside of one of my nearest and dearest friends. Despite being ill for a long time, we didn’t know that he’d been diagnosed with an incurable cancer.

He knew he was going to die but didn’t feel able to tell us any of us. There was a stark clarity to sitting in that packed congregation knowing he was barely out of their teens. His death shaped my life and his silence made me decide that I wanted to help people at the end of their lives.

When I first meet people we’ll talk about what a good life looks like to them and what they would consider to be intolerable.

They’ll set out boundaries around what they consider will be the limit of their suffering, and as their illness progresses, those boundaries almost always shift.

People have described their illness as being like a huge magnifying glass, augmenting what matters most and sometimes allowing them to let go of things they realise don’t really matter.

Others have described to me the lucidity that can come with a short prognosis, how things taste and look different when you know you’ll only ever get to eat or see them a few more times. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and depression can go hand in hand with being physically unwell.

With some clients it’s more important to acknowledge just how sh*t the situation is. There’s no fix for end of life. There’s no cure. Sometimes all someone needs you to do is acknowledge how unfair what’s happening is. The most fundamental part of my job is listening: to really hear what life is like for someone, to bear witness to their pain, to sit with them in their darkest moments and to be there.

That said, I am always amazed at how people are able to find humour in the darkest of situations.

I once helped a young woman say goodbye to her father. She hadn’t been able to get to see him before he died and I accompanied her to the funeral directors.

She was distraught. She’d told me that he had always been a joker and while his lame jokes drove her to distraction during his life, they would be one of the things she’d miss most.

She started crying so I handed her a box of tissues, which she dropped. She then bent down to get it, stood up too soon and knocked his coffin, rocking him like a dingy on a rough sea. I looked up in concerned horror to find her giggling hysterically. She said he’d have loved the sitcom silliness of the moment and felt they’d shared one last laugh.

That people can smile despite, in spite, of all they are facing, that family and friends can demonstrate and show a love that’s pure and deep, is humbling to bear witness to.

I don’t really believe in the idea of a ‘good death’. Describing death as ‘good’ makes me feel I’m doing a disservice to life, to loss and to grief. My job is about helping people live a good life and that ‘living’ includes dying.

The dying, we all hope, will be as gentle and as painless as possible but it’s the living of a good life right up until your last breath, that what it’s all about.

Talk to your children about life and death, dying and grief – it is as important as talking to our children about sex and relationships. And do it now. It’s so much easier to have those conversations when everyone is well. Every adult should write a will, we should all have an Advance Directive, appoint a lasting power of attorney and sign a DNR.

I have regular supervision and therapy to help me do this job. I take time out, and I would prefer to work with fewer people and do an excellent job than take on too much and buckle under the emotional weight.

Hanging out with my three daughters and walking our silly one-eyed dog helps me keep my emotions in check. Gelato helps a lot too.

Complete Article HERE!

The myth of ‘no place like home’ when it comes to end of life

In a new study, MU researchers uncovered several themes that expose the challenges that are often not included in conversations about dying at home.

by

She died at home, but it wasn’t the romantic scene found in movies, where the family held her hand and she simply closed her eyes. In reality, there was a night when she had diarrhea 12 times. In reality, every time she had to be moved she was in pain. This was how a caregiver described caring for her mother as she died at home to social scientists studying end-of-life decision-making.

In a new study, Jacquelyn Benson, assistant professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri, found that home deaths can be physically and emotionally challenging, especially for caregivers.

“The realities of a home death experience present challenges for family members, especially those with limited resources and social support,” Benson said. “It is important that people understand that home death does not automatically equate a good death.”

In recent decades, there has been a groundswell of social movements championing the ideal of dying at home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, home deaths in the U.S. increased nearly 30 percent from 2000 to 2014, while deaths in hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care communities dropped.

To study how home deaths might impact caregivers, Benson along with fellow MU researchers Benyamin Schwarz, Ruth Brent Tofle and Debra Parker Oliver, captured stories from caregivers to identify common themes surrounding the experiences of home deaths. Through the in-depth interviews, the researchers uncovered several themes that exposed the challenges that are often not included in conversations about dying at home. In some cases, challenges arose because there was uncertainty for the decision maker, and some caregivers were not prepared for making decisions regarding the end of a loved one’s life.

The researchers also found that financial resources and strong relationships can help in differentiating good deaths from bad ones. Researchers found that the “good” death experiences involved high levels of emotional support for the dying individuals and the caregivers, and that the place of death played less of a role.

“A few well-known sayings about home are relevant to our findings,” Benson said. “For instance, many people believe there is ‘no place like home,’ which suggests the physical space we call home is paramount when it comes to our comfort. However, another saying, ‘home is where the heart is’ suggests that the essence of home can be replicated in less familiar spaces. When making end-of-life decisions it is important to remember that death can be quite gruesome and that it might be easier on both the dying individual and the caregiver to make a plan that carries the concept of ‘home’ to wherever they might be.”

“The motivations and consequences of dying at home: family perspectives,” was published in a special issue of the Journal of Housing for the Elderly on Environments of Dying, Death, and Caregiving at End-of-Life. Benson served as guest editor for this special issue.