How to Die

As a psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom has helped others grapple with their mortality. Now he is preparing for his own end.

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One morning in May, the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom was recuperating in a sunny room on the first floor of a Palo Alto convalescent hospital. He was dressed in white pants and a green sweater, not a hospital gown, and was quick to point out that he is not normally confined to a medical facility. “I don’t want [this article] to scare my patients,” he said, laughing. Until a knee surgery the previous month, he had been seeing two or three patients a day, some at his office in San Francisco and others in Palo Alto, where he lives. Following the procedure, however, he felt dizzy and had difficulty concentrating. “They think it’s a brain issue, but they don’t know exactly what it is,” he told me in a soft, gravelly voice. He was nonetheless hopeful that he would soon head home; he would be turning 86 in June and was looking forward to the release of his memoir, Becoming Myself, in October.

Issues of The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times Book Review sat on the bed, alongside an iPad. Yalom had been spending his stay watching Woody Allen movies and reading novels by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies. For someone who helped introduce to American psychological circles the idea that a person’s conflicts can result from unresolvable dilemmas of human existence, among them the dread of dying, he spoke easily about his own mortality.

“I haven’t been overwhelmed by fear,” he said of his unfolding health scare. Another of Yalom’s signature ideas, expressed in books such as Staring at the Sun and Creatures of a Day, is that we can lessen our fear of dying by living a regret-free life, meditating on our effect on subsequent generations, and confiding in loved ones about our death anxiety. When I asked whether his lifelong preoccupation with death eases the prospect that he might pass away soon, he replied, “I think it probably makes things easier.”

The hope that our existential fears can be diminished inspires people around the world to email Yalom daily. In a Gmail folder labeled “Fans,” he had saved 4,197 messages from admirers in places ranging from Iran to Croatia to South Korea, which he invited me to look at. Some were simply thank-you notes, expressions of gratitude for the insights delivered by his books. In addition to textbooks and other works of nonfiction, he has written several novels and story collections. Some, such as Love’s Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy and When Nietzsche Wept, have been best sellers.

As I scrolled through the emails, Yalom used his cane to tap a button that alerted the nurses’ station. A voice came through the intercom, and he explained that he needed some ice for his knee. It was the third time he’d called; he told me his pain was making it difficult to concentrate on anything else, though he was trying. Throughout his stay, his wife of more than 60 years, Marilyn, had been stopping by regularly to refresh his reading material. The day before, he’d had a visit from Georgia May, the widow of the existential psychotherapist Rollo May, who was a colleague and friend of Yalom’s. When he runs out of other things to do, he plays on his iPad or his computer, using them with the dexterity of someone half his age.

Many of Yalom’s fan letters are searing meditations on death. Some correspondents hope he will offer relief from deep-seated problems. Most of the time he suggests that they find a local therapist, but if one isn’t available and the issue seems solvable in a swift period—at this point in his career, he won’t work with patients for longer than a year—he may take someone on remotely. He is currently working with people in Turkey, South Africa, and Australia via the internet. Obvious cultural distinctions aside, he says his foreign patients are not that different from the patients he treats in person. “If we live a life full of regret, full of things we haven’t done, if we’ve lived an unfulfilled life,” he says, “when death comes along, it’s a lot worse. I think it’s true for all of us.”

Becoming Myself is clearly the memoir of a psychiatrist. “I awake from my dream at 3 a.m., weeping into my pillow,” reads the opening line. Yalom’s nightmare involves a childhood incident in which he insulted a girl. Much of the book is about the influence that his youth—particularly his relationship with his mother—has had on his life. He writes, quoting Charles Dickens, “For, as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning.”

Yalom first gained fame among psychotherapists for The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. The book, published in 1970, argues that the dynamic in group therapy is a microcosm of everyday life, and that addressing relationships within a therapy group could have profound therapeutic benefits outside of it. “I’ll do the sixth revision next year,” he told me, as nurses came in and out of the room. He was sitting in a chair by the window, fidgeting. Without his signature panama hat, his sideburns, which skate away from his ears, looked especially long.

Although he gave up teaching years ago, Yalom says that until he is no longer capable, he’ll continue seeing patients in the cottage in his backyard. It is a shrink’s version of a man cave, lined with books by Friedrich Nietzsche and the Stoic philosophers. The garden outside features Japanese bonsai trees; deer, rabbits, and foxes make occasional appearances nearby. “When I feel restless, I step outside and putter over the bonsai, pruning, watering, and admiring their graceful shapes,” he writes in Becoming Myself.

Yalom sees each problem encountered in therapy as something of a puzzle, one he and his patient must work together to solve. He described this dynamic in Love’s Executioner, which consists of 10 stories of patients undergoing therapy—true tales from Yalom’s work, with names changed but few other details altered. The stories concentrate not only on Yalom’s suffering patients but also on his own feelings and thoughts as a therapist. “I wanted to rehumanize therapy, to show the therapist as a real person,” he told me.

That might not sound like the stuff of potboilers, but the book, which came out in 1989, was a commercial hit, and continues to sell briskly today. In 2003, the critic Laura Miller credited it with inaugurating a new genre. Love’s Executioner, she wrote in The New York Times, had shown “that the psychological case study could give readers what the short fiction of the time increasingly refused to deliver: the pursuit of secrets, intrigue, big emotions, plot.”

Today, the people around the world who email Yalom know him mostly from his writing, which has been translated into dozens of languages. Like David Hasselhoff, he may well be more of a star outside the United States than at home. This likely reflects American readers’ religiosity and insistence on happy endings. Mondays with Yalom are not Tuesdays With Morrie. Yalom can be morbid, and he doesn’t believe in an afterlife; he says his anxiety about death is soothed somewhat by the belief that what follows life will be the same as what preceded it. Not surprisingly, he told me, highly religious readers don’t tend to gravitate toward his books.

Yalom is candid, both in his memoir and in person, about the difficulties of aging. When two of his close friends died recently, he realized that his cherished memory of their friendship is all that remains. “It dawned on me that that reality doesn’t exist anymore,” he said sadly. “When I die, it will be gone.” The thought of leaving Marilyn behind is agonizing. But he also dreads further physical deterioration. He now uses a walker with tennis balls on the bottoms of the legs, and he has recently lost weight. He coughed frequently during our meeting; when I emailed him a month later, he was feeling better, but said of his health scare, “I consider those few weeks as among the very worst of my life.” He can no longer play tennis or go scuba diving, and he fears he might have to stop bicycling. “Getting old,” he writes in ​Becoming Myself, “is giving up one damn thing after another.”

In his books, Yalom emphasizes that love can reduce death anxiety, both by providing a space for people to share their fears and by contributing to a well-lived life. Marilyn, an accomplished feminist literary scholar with whom he has a close intellectual partnership, inspires him to keep living every bit as much as she makes the idea of dying excruciating. “My wife matches me book for book,” he told me at one point. But although Yalom’s email account has a folder titled “Ideas for Writing,” he said he may finally be out of book ideas. Meanwhile, Marilyn told me that she had recently helped a friend, a Stanford professor’s wife, write an obituary for her own husband.* “This is the reality of where we are in life,” she said.

Early in Yalom’s existential-psychotherapy practice, he was struck by how much comfort people derived from exploring their existential fears. “Dying,” he wrote in Staring at the Sun, “is lonely, the loneliest event of life.” Yet empathy and connectedness can go a long way toward reducing our anxieties about mortality. When, in the 1970s, Yalom began working with patients diagnosed with untreatable cancer, he found they were sometimes heartened by the idea that, by dying with dignity, they could be an example to others.

Death terror can occur in anyone at any time, and can have life-changing effects, both negative and positive. “Even for those with a deeply ingrained block against openness—those who have always avoided deep friendships—the idea of death may be an awakening experience, catalyzing an enormous shift in their desire for intimacy,” Yalom has written. Those who haven’t yet lived the life they wanted to can still shift their priorities late in life. “The same thing was true with Ebenezer Scrooge,” he told me, as a nurse brought him three pills.

For all the morbidity of existential psychotherapy, it is deeply life-affirming. Change is always possible. Intimacy can be freeing. Existence is precious. “I hate the idea of leaving this world, this wonderful life,” Yalom said, praising a metaphor devised by the scientist Richard Dawkins to illustrate the fleeting nature of existence. Imagine that the present moment is a spotlight moving its way across a ruler that shows the billions of years the universe has been around. Everything to the left of the area lit by the spotlight is over; to the right is the uncertain future. The chances of us being in the spotlight at this particular moment—of being alive—are minuscule. And yet here we are.

Yalom’s apprehension about death is allayed by his sense that he has lived well. “As I look back at my life, I have been an overachiever, and I have few regrets,” he said quietly. Still, he continued, people have “an inbuilt impulse to want to survive, to live.” He paused. “I hate to see life go.”

Complete Article HERE!

Meet the ‘end-of-life doulas’ guiding people to their death

By Emily Ford

Lizzie Neville is an ‘end-of-life doula’ who helps people prepare for death.

Doula is a term traditionally associated with childbirth, describing someone who helps a woman before, during or after childbirth.

But ‘death doula’ Lizzie, from Alton, Hampshire, was hired by Lowri Rylance, from Basingstoke, when her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

We took a snapshot of the last year of people’s lives – here’s what we found

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Sorry to be the bearer of bad news – sooner or later, we’ll all reach the end of our lives. Many of us are not keen to face this event, nor the time that comes directly before. It’s actually hard to say what is the bigger taboo, death or the personal care that most of us receive in our final days and weeks.

According to the Health Organisation, more than half of us die of an illness that requires some form of end of life care. Depending on your definitions, the figure can be much higher – a German study found it to be more like four out of five, which is in line with findings from my work in Scotland. Either way, care providers expect the absolute numbers of people in Western countries in need of end of life care to keep growing as populations continue to grow older in future.

As you might expect, older people have a higher chance of developing ailments that need care. The group of those experiencing a long period of dwindling physical and mental faculties due to frail old age or dementia is already rising: according to the death records that we examined in Scotland, for example, it doubled from 5.1% in 2001-02 to 9.7% in 2011-12, and dementia rates have continued to increase. The share of people undergoing shorter periods of decline, such as cancer patients, rose to 29.5% of all deaths in 2011-12. These numbers are slightly higher than many other countries, but roughly comparable.

Given these figures, you may wonder: what is life like at its end? Do people receive the care and support they need? The answer is, not everyone does. My colleague Iain Atherton and I mapped the last year of people’s lives in Scotland using a mixture of census data NHS data, and death records. Here’s what we found out.

Deprivation and being alone

We looked at all 53,517 people who died in Scotland within a year of the last census in 2011. About one in five were below pension age, half were aged 65-84, and just under a third were 85 or older. Every third person lived alone, and around 40% were widowed. Not the ideal situation when you need care.

The closer people were to dying, the more likely they were to have moved in with others. This varied by neighbourhood deprivation, however. In more deprived areas, 37% of people aged 70 and over – those most likely to need care – still lived alone, even in the last four weeks of their lives. In the least deprived areas, the rate was 25%. (In this age group as a whole, 18% of people died in a care home.)

To my knowledge, nobody has come up with directly comparable figures for other countries. From Eurostat data from 2014, though, we do know that 32% of over-65s in the EU live alone, for example, and that the UK is almost exactly in line with the average.

Let’s be honest: few people find the idea of living alone in old age appealing, no matter what their health status. In many cases, it goes hand-in-hand with depending on external services for care – strangers that invade the innermost sphere of your privacy. It’s probably one of the major reasons why people don’t like talking about this stage of life.

Consider new options

Yet if we want to make our last months and years of life less bleak, talking and acting is exactly what we need to do. As I have just discussed at a show at the Edinburgh Fringe on the subject, we should consider new options. We need to think outside the box, and ensure that we are the decision makers instead of being pushed back into the role of dependent.

Are retirement villages an option, for example? Or better still, housing complexes with people from different generations, where even a frail grandad can help the neighbour’s boy with his homework and still feel part of the community? Or can you band together with some friends, either in one house or in adjacent flats?

Bicep building.

In many cases, care decisions are made ad hoc, because an immediate solution is required. When your mother has had yet another fall and it’s clear she can no longer stay on her own and needs a care home bed in two days when she comes out of the hospital, there is no time to find the best home for her. You must take the place that is available.

Isn’t it funny that many of us tend to take out life insurance in case we die prematurely but don’t make provisions for the very likely possibility that we’ll need care? I doubt you look forward to your care home stay, the tightly scheduled visit of the district nurse, or the look on the face of your children when they need to decide whether they want to sell the house they grew up in to pay for better care for you.

Rich or poor, man or woman, the clock is ticking for all of us. Too many older people are facing the most vulnerable stage in their adult lives alone, and the next generation needs to find ways of avoiding this situation. It’s not to say that governments and healthcare providers shouldn’t take responsibility for care – they do anyway – but if we blindly rely on them to provide, there are limits to what we will receive. Before it’s too late, it’s better that we also come up with plans of our own.

Complete Article HERE!

Death doulas explain why everyone should have an end-of-life plan

Death doula Carmen Barnsley thinks people should talk more about death and be more informed about their options.

By Nicole Mills

A new breed of doulas are helping break down the fear around death, which they say shouldn’t be a confronting word.

Carmen Barnsley from Melbourne said just like birth doulas, death doulas were there to provide support, knowledge and assistance during times of upheaval and uncertainty.

“I find it is just a privilege and a humbling experience to be where life enters this world and when life leaves it,” the former nurse said.

“Death is just as amazing an experience as birth is, but we celebrate birth and we deny death.”

Ms Barnsley has had her own experience with death. Her son died when he was five months old.

While she was in the depths of numbing grief, the hospital handed over a Yellow Pages and told her and her husband they needed to pick a funeral parlour.

It was the first of many conversations she had during the grieving process that made her realise that as a society, we need to start doing death better.

“Some cultures do death beautifully. It’s a reflection of the person’s life, whereas I think we do it pretty poorly,” she said.

“The honest thing I can say about the doulas in my network is everyone has been through a personal process of death.

“A lot of the doulas who are coming from personal experiences are coming from terrible personal experiences and were seeking answers to improve it so that doesn’t happen to another person again.”

Emotions run high

Ms Barnsley said her colleagues came from all walks of life, having worked as hospital chaplains, accountants, social workers, celebrants and in the funeral industry.

She wants people to understand that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to death.

“A death doula isn’t about dying, it’s about allowing that individual to live until they die.

“I find when somebody puts a plan in place they will then live until they die, as ironic as that sounds.”

She recommends having conversations about death when you’re young and healthy instead of leaving it until death approaches when emotions run high.

“In the medical profession we have informed consent. I’d love for end-of-life issues to have informed choices.

“I don’t have a terminal disease but I have an advanced life care directive in place.

“My doctor has got a copy; this is probably a little bit touchy at the moment, but mine is actually up on the [My Health Record] healthcare site … so that any hospital in Australia can access my directive.”

The dying space

The main thing Ms Barnsley wants people to know is that death doesn’t have to be impersonal and there is no prescribed process to follow.

“You don’t need a funeral home, and some people don’t even know that,” she said.

“You may need to get one to transport someone, but you can have a loved one at home, you can organise transport straight to burial or cremation or whatever the person’s choice is.

“[In the past] a family did care for loved ones dying; it wasn’t in a hospital, it wasn’t medicalised, it wasn’t institutionalised and that was the norm.

“But there became a fear factor with death; let’s take it behind closed doors, we don’t talk about it, and there’s still people within our community that still have that.”

Melbourne death doula Bonita Ralph says talking about death is important.

Bonita Ralph first came into contact with doulas when she was pregnant with her first child.

Years later she read an article about the work of death doulas and realised it was a similar concept.

“For me it was a very lightbulb moment where I went, ‘Oh my God, of course that’s the same thing’,” she said.

“It’s the same sort of energy, the birthing space and the dying space.”

Ms Ralph comes from a community welfare and social justice background and sees the work of a death doula as an “in-between role” to help bridge the gap between the medical system and the community.

“I think a lot of people think that when you’re a doula, you’re sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying, and that hasn’t been my experience yet,” she said.

“I think that may come, it may not, and that’s OK because I think the doula role, for me, is broader than that.

“A doula is a companion, someone to walk with you, someone to support you in your choices and that absolutely applies to end-of-life care and death.”

Know your choices

Ms Ralph said one of the best things people could do was spend time reflecting on their own experience with death and understand where their knowledge about death comes from.

“I think we’re moving really slowly towards acknowledging that if we don’t have role models and experiences, then we actually don’t know what to do,” she said.

“They need to know that it’s not illegal to take someone who has died home. It’s not illegal to organise your own funeral. You don’t need a funeral director. It’s a lot of work and maybe I wouldn’t suggest it; logistically it’s tricky, but it’s not impossible.

“People do dig their own graves, the graves of family members. That is not impossible. There are options out there.”

Ms Ralph said these options would not be for everyone, and while Australia was blessed to have a good medical system, it was important to know your choices.

“I don’t want people to feel like they’re being forced or that there’s a right or wrong way to do death,” she said.

“Death is so important because if you don’t offer good support, if you don’t offer genuine response to what that family needs, there’s going to be complicated bereavement results because people don’t move through and grow with their grief. They can get stuck.”

She said often people found it easier to talk openly about death with a doula, but she always encouraged people to have those same conversations at home so their next of kin understood their wishes.

“Talking about death is not weird. It’s important.

“Ask anyone who has had to work through a complicated death process such as a tragic death or complicated families or someone has died and left everything undone and the family has to pick up the pieces.

“Have these conversations when you’re young and well and alive and engaged, and have these conversations ongoing because things change. Relationships change. Expectations change. So don’t be afraid and keep having that conversation.”

Events are being held across Australia on August 8 for Dying to Know Day, which aims to start conversations around death, dying and bereavement.

For more information and to find events near you visit the Dying to Know Day website.

Complete Article HERE!

What does it mean to have a ‘good death’?

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What do you see when you picture an ideal death?

Are you surrounded by friends and family members, or is the setting more intimate? Are you at a hospital or at home? Are you pain-free? Were you able to feed yourself up until your death? Is there a spiritual element to your experience?

“We talk about personal medicine, but there should be personalized death too,” said Dr. Dilip Jeste, director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Finding out what kind of death a person would like to have should not be a taboo topic.”

To help open up the conversation in our death-phobic culture, Jeste and his colleagues are working on a broad definition of a “good death” that will help healthcare workers and family members ensure that a dying person’s final moments are as comfortable and meaningful as possible.

“You can make it a positive experience for everybody,” Jeste said. “Yes, it is a sad experience, but knowing it is inevitable, let us see what we can do that will help.”

The group’s first step was to look at previously published studies that examined what constitutes a good death according to people who are dying, their family members and healthcare workers.

The results were published this week in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

The researchers searched through two large research databases — PubMed and PsycINFO — but they were able to find only 36 articles in the last 20 years that were relevant to their work.

Jeste said the lack of studies on a good death was not surprising.

“We don’t want to deal with unpleasant things, and there is nothing good that we associate with death, so why do research on it?” he said.

The articles the team did find included studies done in the United States, Japan, the Netherlands, Iran, Israel and Turkey.

From these, they identified 11 different themes that contribute to successful dying including dignity, pain-free status, quality of life, family, emotional well being, and religiosity and spirituality. Also on the list were life completion, treatment preferences, preference for dying process, relationship with healthcare provider, and “other.”

The authors report that the most important elements of a good death differ depending on whom you ask, but there was agreement on some of them.

One hundred percent of patients and family members as well as 94% of healthcare workers said preference for the dying process — defined as getting to choose who is with you when you die, as well as where and when — is an important element of a successful death.

There was also widespread agreement that being pain-free at the time of death is an important component of successful dying. Ninety percent of family members, 85% of patients and 83% of healthcare workers mentioned it across the various studies.

Religiosity and spirituality — meeting with clergy, having faith, and receiving religious or spiritual comfort — appeared to be significantly more important to the definition of a good death by those who were dying than to family members or healthcare workers. The authors report that this theme was brought up by 65% of patients, but just 59% of healthcare workers and 50% of family members.

Family members were more concerned with the idea of dignity –defined here as being respected as an individual and having independence — at the end of life than either healthcare workers or patients were. The idea that dignity was an important element of a good death was brought up by 80% of family members, but just 61% of healthcare workers and 55% of patients.

Similarly, having a good quality of life –meaning living as usual, and believing life is worth living even at the end– was listed as an important part of a good death by 70% of family members, but just 35% of patients and 22% of healthcare workers.

“For a dying person, the concerns seem to be more existential and psychological and less physical,” Jeste said.

And here the authors see a call to action.

“Although it is important that we attend to the patient’s physical symptoms… it is crucial that the healthcare system… more closely address psychological, social and spirituality themes in the end-of-life care for both patients and families,” they write.

They also say this work is just the start of a much longer conversation.

Jeste hopes that one day terminally ill patients might receive a checklist that will help them think about and express what they consider a good death so that family members and healthcare workers can help them achieve it.

“We are not just interested in research,” Jeste said. “We are interested in improving well being.”

Complete Article HERE!

How These Med Schools Are Improving End-of-Life Instruction

It’s a shift toward care based on who the patient is and what he or she wants

By Bruce Johansen

While all medical students must witness a birth, being present for someone who’s dying is not a requirement. Dying has traditionally received little attention in medical school curricula. Interviewed by The Boston Herald earlier this year, Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon, founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Serious Illness Care and author of Being Mortal (also a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging) said his end-of-life training amounted to one hour of discussion during his first two years in medical school. He’s now part of an innovative effort to improve education about end-of-life care at Massachusetts’ four medical schools: Harvard University, Boston University, Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

What Matters Most at End-of-Life

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine,” Gawande writes in Being Mortal. “We think our job is to ensure health and survival, but really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.” Gawande emphasizes training students to discern what gives a person’s life meaning and then choosing a course of treatment based on what that information involves. It’s a shift away from a “fix-it” mentality, which focuses on prolonging life.

Gawande credits the transformation in his thinking to observing palliative care clinicians and geriatricians. On an episode of PBS’ FRONTLINE, Gawande explained that seeing his colleagues’ conversations with their patients taught him what he could do better for his own.

One of those colleagues, Dr. Jennifer Reidy, is chief of palliative care at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass. and a University of Massachusetts Medical School professor. “What’s great about palliative care is that you can incorporate it into your practice no matter what specialty you are,” Reidy says.

Holding conversations about what matters most and “being able to treat people’s pain and other distressing symptoms that affect their quality of life are all things that any doctor should be able to do in their field,” she says. Reidy foresees eventual changes in training extended to entire care teams: nurses, nurse practitioners, social workers, chaplains and pharmacists.

Reidy was one of the first students to do a palliative care rotation during her training at University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine in the late 1990s. There she learned that the care plan should be driven by who the person is, not by the available technology or what was possible.

If a person is diagnosed with an incurable disease, she says, the essential question comes down to: How do you make the most meaningful use of whatever time remains?

According to Reidy, this often means “focusing on being with the people who they love, and being more in their ‘real lives,’” rather than in the hospital. Given the option to forego harsh, life-prolonging therapy, many take care of things left undone such as making amends or getting financial affairs in order.

“It’s so unique to whatever is meaningful for that person,” Reidy says.

Fired Up Students

While details of the curricula will look different, Reidy says students at each participating school will be taught complex communication procedures for breaking difficult news and having conversations about prognoses and end-of-life planning.

When it comes to communication, “no one gets a pass anymore,” says Reidy. What’s exciting to her is that students are fired up about these developments. “It really taps into their sense of meaning and purpose, and why they came into medicine in the first place,” she says.

Students are learning how to share information in chunks and in clear language, then to pause, listen, allow questions, allow silence, allow emotion and sit with someone’s sadness or anger.

“Then they’ll be able to figure out amidst all of this, what’s most important, what should we be focusing on,” Reidy says.

To ascertain what will bring well-being, Gawande promotes students learning to ask:

• What is your understanding of your illness?
• What are your fears and worries for the future?
• What are your priorities if time becomes short?
• What are you willing to sacrifice and what are you not willing to sacrifice?
• What does a good day look like?

Instead of prompting a conversation about death or dying, these questions get to the crux of: How do you live a good life all the way to the very end, with whatever comes?

Building Momentum

Tiffany Chen, a fourth-year University of Massachusetts Medical School student, is a “champion” of the project, says Reidy. Growing up in a multigenerational home with parents and grandparents, Chen was first exposed to palliative care during her senior year of college when her grandfather was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia at the end of his life. Two years later, when her grandmother was diagnosed with bladder cancer, Reidy was assigned to be her palliative care doctor. Chen credits Reidy’s care with changing her grandmother’s course of treatment and the “quality of her death.”

Combined with a love of helping people, that experience inspired Chen to pursue a medical career. She hopes to go into family medicine and eventually have a fellowship that’s integrated in geriatrics and palliative care.

Chen has taken leadership at her school, including being part of organizing a focus group of students interested in giving palliative care “more of a voice.” The new curriculum, she says, promises to make students “better equipped at baseline to have these conversations.” They’ll become more adept at reading people’s cues and better communicators overall, “by first listening,” she says.

“The biggest thing is actually practicing with someone who’s experienced observing, and then giving you feedback,” Chen says. At her school, a simulation lab and new training methods, including role-playing patient actors, are key.

Reidy feels hopeful that the consortium is part of a larger movement, noting that medical schools at the University of Rochester and Yale University have stepped up as leaders.

Massachusetts offers a new model — the first time each of a state’s medical schools have joined forces. It’s this collaborative element that is having an impact on her school’s administration, says Chen. “Prior to this, you’d talk about palliative care being very important and needing to be in the curriculum, but that’s true of a lot of things.” The partnership has created momentum.

Complete Article HERE!

I Know You Love Me — Now Let Me Die

A physician laments the often-excessive care of older adults at the end of life

By Louis M. Profeta, M.D.

In the old days, she would be propped up on a comfy pillow, in fresh cleaned sheets under the corner window where she would, in days gone past, watch her children play. Soup would boil on the stove just in case she felt like a sip or two. Perhaps the radio softly played Al Jolson or Glenn Miller, flowers sat on the nightstand, and family quietly came and went.

These were her last days. Spent with familiar sounds, in a familiar room, with familiar smells that gave her a final chance to summon memories that will help carry her away.

She might have offered a hint of a smile or a soft squeeze of the hand but it was all right if she didn’t. She lost her own words to tell us that it’s OK to just let her die, but she trusted us to be her voice and we took that trust to heart.

A day does not go by where my partners don’t look at each other and say, “How do we stop this madness?”

You see, that’s how she used to die. We saw our elderly different then.

Still the Same Person

We could still look at her face and deep into her eyes and see the shadows of a soft, clean, vibrantly innocent child playing on a porch somewhere in the Midwest during the 1920s perhaps. A small rag doll dances and flays as she clutches it in her hand. She laughs with her barefoot brother, who is clad in overalls, as he chases her around the yard with a grasshopper on his finger. She screams and giggles. Her father watches from the porch in a wooden rocker, laughing while mom gently scolds her brother.

We could see her taking a ride for the first time in an automobile, a small pickup with wooden panels driven by a young man with wavy curls. He smiles gently at her while she sits staring at the road ahead; a fleeting wisp of a smile gives her away. Her hands are folded in her lap, clutching a small beaded purse.

‘Enriched and Happy’

We could see her standing in a small church. She is dressed in white cotton, holding hands with the young man, and saying, “I do.” Her mom watches with tearful eyes. Her dad has since passed. Her new husband lifts her across the threshold, holding her tight. He promises to love and care for her forever. Her life is enriched and happy.

We could see her cradling her infant, cooking breakfast, hanging sheets, loving her family, sending her husband off to war, and her child to school.

We could see her welcoming her husband back from battle with a hug that lasts the rest of his life. She buries him on a Saturday under an elm, next to her father. She marries off her child and spends her later years volunteering at church functions before her mind starts to fade and the years take their toll and God says: “It’s time to come home.”

Adding Time but Not Life

This is how we used to see her before we became blinded by the endless tones of monitors and whirrs of machines, buzzers, buttons and tubes that can add five years to a shell of a body that was entrusted to us and should have been allowed to pass quietly propped up in a corner room, under a window, scents of homemade soup in case she wanted a sip.

You see now we can breathe for her, eat for her and even pee for her. Once you have those three things covered she can, instead of being gently cradled under that corner window, be placed in a nursing home and penned in a cage of bed rails and soft restraints meant to “keep her safe.”

She can be fed a steady diet of Ensure through a tube directly into her stomach and she can be kept alive until her limbs contract and her skin thins so much that a simple bump into that bed rail can literally open her up until her exposed tendons are staring into the eyes of an eager medical student looking for a chance to sew.

She can be kept alive until her bladder is chronically infected, until antibiotic resistant diarrhea flows and pools in her diaper so much that it erodes her buttocks. The fat padding around her tailbone and hips are consumed and ulcers open up, exposing the underlying bone, which now becomes ripe for infection.

‘We Stopped Seeing Her’

We now are in a time of medicine where we will take that small child running through the yard, being chased by her brother with a grasshopper on his finger, and imprison her in a shell that does not come close to radiating the life of what she once had.

We stopped seeing her, not intentionally perhaps, but we stopped.

This is not meant as a condemnation of the family of these patients or to question their love or motives, but it is meant be an indictment of a system that now herds these families down dead-end roads and prods them into believing that this is the new norm and that somehow the old ways were the wrong ways and this is how we show our love.

A day does not go by where my partners don’t look at each other and say, “How do we stop this madness? How do we get people to let their loved ones die?”

I’ve been practicing emergency medicine for close to a quarter of a century now and I’ve cared for countless thousands of elderly patients. I, like many of my colleagues, have come to realize that while we are developing more and more ways to extend life, we have also provided water and nutrients to a forest of unrealistic expectations that have real-time consequences for those frail bodies that have been entrusted to us.

A Slow, But Enormous Change

This transition to doing more and more did not just happen on a specific day in some month of some year. Our end-of-life psyche has slowly devolved and shifted and a few generations have passed since the onset of the Industrial Revolution of medicine.

Now we are trapped. We have accumulated so many options, drugs, stents, tubes, FDA-approved snake oils and procedures that there is no way we can throw a blanket over all our elderly and come to a consensus as to what constitutes inappropriate and excessive care. We cannot separate out those things meant to simply prolong life from those meant to prolong quality life.

Nearly 50 percent of the elderly U.S. population now die in nursing homes or hospitals. When they do finally pass, they are often surrounded by teams of us doctors and nurses, medical students, respiratory therapists and countless other health care providers pounding on their chests, breaking their ribs, burrowing large IV lines into burned-out veins and plunging tubes into swollen and bleeding airways.

‘What in the Hell Were You Thinking?’

We never say much as we frantically try to save the life we know we can’t save or perhaps silently hope we don’t save. When it’s finally over and the last heart beat blips across the screen and we survey the clutter of bloody gloves, wrappers, masks and needles that now litter the room, you may catch a glimpse as we bow our heads in shame, fearful perhaps that someday we may have to stand in front of God as he looks down upon us and says, “What in the hell were you thinking?”

When it comes time for us to be called home, those of us in the know will pray that when we gaze down upon our last breath we will be grateful that our own doctors and families chose to do what they should instead of what they could, and with that we will close our eyes to familiar sounds in a familiar room, a fleeting smile and a final soft squeeze of a familiar hand.

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