06/24/17

Many faith leaders are unprepared to help people make peace with death

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Rabbi Laura Geller addresses a room of participants at Temple Emanuel’s conference, “The Next Stage: Looking Backwards and Ahead,” on November 9, 2014.

Confronting sickness and death is part of a faith leader’s job description. Members of the clergy sit with congregants during chemotherapy treatments and pray with them in the midst of pain.

Pastors prepare for this work at seminary, spending a semester working as a hospital chaplain or volunteering at a nursing home. However, some still enter professional ministry unprepared to sit at someone’s bedside and offer advice, according to recent research on religion and end-of-life care.

Many faith leaders are uncertain of when aggressive treatments should be traded for hospice care and confused about what palliative treatments consist of, reports a study in the April issue of the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

Seven in 10 clergy members say it is “somewhat” or “quite a bit” important for them to encourage ongoing treatment for a cancer patient, even when a doctor says there is no hope for a cure, notes a new study in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

This research, as well as other findings from The National Clergy Project on End-of-Life Care, points to a need for ongoing education, according to health experts.

“Poor knowledge of end-of-life care may lead clergy to passively enable congregants with serious illness to pursue … treatments that are associated with increased suffering,” wrote researchers in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

The National Clergy Project is part of Harvard University’s Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality. Program leaders are working on a free end-of-life care curriculum to empower faith leaders, highlighting the important role religion often plays at the end of people’s lives.

“What clergy say — and what they do not say — can make a major difference in whether believers experience a ‘good death,'” the Association of Religion Data Archives reported in its overview of recent research.

Increasingly, palliative care, which focuses on providing pain relief rather than a cure, is seen as a key part of dying well, yet many people, including pastors, find it difficult to give up on intense or invasive treatments.

Accepting that a cure isn’t possible “may be perceived as a decision that undermines one’s faith in a God who may intervene with a miracle through medical treatment,” wrote researchers in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

These researchers and other experts at The National Clergy Project on End-of-Life Care don’t want to undermine religious beliefs. But they do want to ensure that faith leaders are informed about medical options before they influence a patient’s decisions.

“Our goal is for patients and families facing difficult medical decisions to receive better spiritual and medical care,” the project website notes.

Around 3 in 4 faith leaders are open to training on end-of-life care, recent research showed.

In addition to seeking out insights from medical professionals, members of the clergy may benefit from organizing conversations about death and dying within their communities. Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, has done this as part of a broader effort to understand what people at her synagogue fear as they near retirement.

“The conversations were so rich and powerful that nobody wanted them to end,” she told the Deseret News last year.

Initial small-group discussions on life after retirement grew into a communitywide effort to better serve the needs of older synagogue members. People thought through how to emotionally and spiritually grow even as their bodies aged and illnesses loomed, Rabbi Geller said.

“How do you make meaning in the face of the fact that you’re going to die? That’s what faith communities are supposed to be teaching people,” she said.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/19/17

This Nursing Professor Is On a Quest to Improve End-of-Life Care, Worldwide

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Nursing professor Cathy Campbell aims to expand palliative care practices in places around the world where it’s existed only informally.

By Christine Phelan Kueter

Each week, as she sits at the bedside of dying patients, University of Virginia nursing professor Cathy Campbell remembers the bad old days of end-of-life care during her early nursing practice in the mid-1980s.

Staff didn’t know how to treat patients, their bodies addled by pain and disease, and treatment had less to do with pain management than with beating back deadly illnesses, she recalled. Even for patients who were moments from passing away, there was great reluctance to offer relief with drugs like morphine and Demerol, so as not “to hasten death.” But death in hospital intensive care units, with wires and tubes snaking from patients’ every orifice, was painfully common.

“There was always this great tension between compassionate care and the cure, the cure, the cure,” said Campbell, recollecting her early years as a nurse in a Florida Veterans Administration hospital, “and at that point palliative care wasn’t very good, and the things we did to patients weren’t very good for them, either.”

While the memories still smart, Campbell’s relieved when she considers the expanse of modern palliative care, and the growing understanding that “there is such a thing as a good death.”

But drugs and technologies aside, palliative care remains rooted in compassionate presence. That might mean that light chit-chat, passing ice to the bedridden, or quietly holding a griever’s hand. It also might mean answering loved ones’ frank and probing questions – What does death look like? How do you know if he’s in pain? Does she know we’re here at all? – or recommending medication adjustments for pain, based upon observed distress.

Many times, though, Campbell’s just there, palms up, offering herself as a witness and a comfort.

“This is what I want to do, where I want to be,” said Campbell, a nurse for 31 years and a palliative care scholar for 25. “The day of death is one day, but there are a lot of other days to provide support in between.”

But if palliative care has more recently expanded into America’s consciousness, beyond our borders its practice is spotty at best, and absent at worse. That absence is felt most acutely in the world’s poorest, most rural regions where chronic illness and death from diseases like HIV and AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis are common.

In many areas, palliative care is anemic due to too few providers. In South Africa, for instance, the patient-nurse ratio is 417-to-1, a reality that pushes many tasks onto community health workers who provide the majority of rural patients’ care. Among those workers – local individuals, some trained, who do home visits and provide a conduit to nurses in charge of vast geographic territories and literally thousands of patients – palliative care knowledge is even less common.

Most community health workers have basic training in bathing and turning bed-ridden patients; perhaps know how to take vital signs, like blood pressure and pulse; and may, too, know something about vectors of disease transmission for some of the region’s most deadly diseases, including tuberculosis and HIV. But palliative care, Campbell said, is “learned on the fly,” even as it’s an increasingly robust part of their job.

Those gaps in knowledge are due to the fact that palliative care concepts haven’t become fully integrated into overseas’ nursing curricula. It all adds up to a perfect storm, Campbell said, even in this era when the World Health Organization has declared access to palliative care “a human right.”

Given these twin realities, Campbell said, a movement to buttress community health workers’ education, skills and reach is afoot, and Campbell is in the thick of the march. She just received a two-year Fulbright Scholarship to augment the bare-bones understanding of palliative care as it exists in two rural provinces of South Africa and Thailand, and how best to broaden it with the support of community health workers.

Campbell’s years of work as a faculty mentor and researcher at UVA’s Center for Global Health have provided invaluable insight into the many issues and tremendous potential of community health workers in rural communities. This summer, Campbell will mentor a team, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Venda, of Center for Global Health University Scholars for a fourth year of longitudinal research on community health worker engagement in community care.

With the Fulbright, Campbell and her UVA research assistants will conduct focus groups with 60 rural community health workers across Thailand and South Africa to discuss the cases they see and document how they handle them, in order to determine what types of educational and training programs make the most sense. Their ultimate aim is to expand palliative care practices in places where it’s existed only informally.

Campbell has already observed community health workers’ appetite for training in palliative care in particular – “they’re eager for it,” she reports – and in many cases, the most experienced and seasoned workerss are likely to receive training and education and then return to their peers to train them.

Community health workers, Campbell said, are the linchpin to expanding developing nations’ palliative care reach into the rural communities that need it.

“We can train CHWs to do more, because they’re really the ones doing the work,” Campbell said. “They’re a community treasure.”

Complete Article HERE!

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06/8/17

How GPs can handle conversations about end-of-life care

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Talking to patients about end-of-life care is not easy even for experienced health professionals, says Dr Pete Nightingale, but following simple guidelines can make the process easier.

By Dr Pete Nightingale

As a GP, you are likely to have had many patients in your care with a life-limiting condition, or who are approaching the end of their life. Speaking honestly about death with someone who will soon face it themselves can be daunting, but can also be extremely rewarding.

A new report by Macmillan Cancer Support, No Regrets, explores the taboo around death, and included the worrying revelation that while 76% of people with cancer have thought about their own death, just 8% of these have shared their feelings with a healthcare professional.

This is concerning for a few reasons. I’d hate to think that any of my patients could be suffering in silence, feeling they cannot share their concerns with me.

GPs and their teams have the potential to play a significant role in helping people work through an Advance Care Plan. Macmillan has found that when healthcare professionals have a record of where someone would like to die, they are nearly twice as likely to die in the place of their choosing.

But talking isn’t always easy, so here are some tips:

Starting the conversation

Some people will make it clear that they are ready to start talking about it, but some may be waiting for a professional to bring it up. You could try a gentle prompt, such as, ‘many people at times like this want to discuss the future’.

Listen to the patient rather than talking yourself

People with an incurable diagnosis may value a sense of control so follow their agenda as much as possible in conversations. Some people, when they are nervous, try to cover this up by talking, but all you need to do is show you are listening. Reflecting what  the patient says back to them can be a reassuring way of letting the patient know you are listening.

Think about including a family member in the conversation

Ask if they want someone close to them to be present. It can provide support for the patient and can also help ease communication within families. Some families shy away from discussing Advance Care Planning, so emphasise the importance of letting the patient talk about the future, if that’s what they want.

Focus on personal preferences

Support the patient in talking about what they would like to happen and what a ‘good’ death means to them. This can include anything from pain relief, location, whether they want their family members present, religious or spiritual needs, or more. Be prepared for the conversation to be more wide-ranging than their clinical needs.

Don’t rush

As GPs, we have an increasingly hectic working life. But remember, there is no time-scale for completing an Advance Care Plan. You can carry the conversation into other appointments, or ask other primary care staff to help.  Help could come from members of  the nursing team or trained care administrators and in some areas trained volunteers are involved.

Ask open questions, listen, then record and share (with permission)

If the patient allows it, let their wishes be known to family, key professionals and out-of-hours services, ideally electronically so they’re accessible.

Be honest

It may be tempting to offer false reassurance to comfort the patient. This can be misleading and prevent the person from coming to terms with what is happening. Phrases like ‘don’t worry’ may seem comforting, but they also imply that you are unwilling to answer difficult questions.

It’s ok not to have the answers

You may feel anxious that you won’t be able to answer all their questions, but you don’t have to have all the answers. Be honest, and say ‘I actually don’t know, but let me find out for you’.

Take opportunities when they arise

If you have the chance to complete an Advance Care Plan with someone, or even just start the conversation, take it! Even if they seem well, remember that there may not be more opportunities to have this chat with them, and people can deteriorate quickly. It’s better to have the conversation sooner rather than later.

Complete Article HERE!

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05/27/17

So, you want to hire a death doula?

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Three things to consider

By Amy Wright Glenn

It is estimated that 6 percent of American women now hire birth doulas for emotional, physical and even spiritual support during labor and delivery. Twenty years ago, when the birth and postpartum doula movement was in its nascent stage, this percentage was certainly much, much lower.

In fact, 20 years ago, the word “doula” itself evoked quizzical looks. Even 10 years ago, following my initial certification with DONA International, friends, family and colleagues would often inquire: “What’s a doula?” Today, the term has become a part of our common lexicon. Most Americans recognize its meaning: A birth doula is a professional trained in comfort measures, listening techniques and providing compassionate care to women as they labor to give birth.

But, what about death?

How many Americans have heard of “death doulas”?

Today, wise and creative cultural pioneers lead a burgeoning movement in applying key elements of the birth doula model to train people to companion each other in death. Given that our experience of death has become so institutionalized and medicalized, applying the doula model of care to death and dying represents a sane and needed grounding in the wisdom of compassion, companioning and proven comfort measures.

Henry Fersko-Weiss is such a pioneer. Author of “Caring for the Dying: The Doula Approach to a Meaningful Death,” Fersko-Weiss has trained more than 350 death doulas through the International End of Life Doula Association. Fersko-Weiss believes that the end-of-life doula movement will grow faster than the birth doula movement did because the birth doula movement “brought the word doula into American consciousness.”

As someone who holds space for both birth and death, I’m hopeful that Fersko-Weiss is right. My specialty is in working with bereaved parents who know the pain of miscarriage, stillbirth and/or infant death. I’ve witnessed firsthand that there is much wisdom to be gained by applying the doula approach of caregiving to the concluding threshold points of our earthly existence. Certified hospice and palliative nurse and end-of-life doula Deanna Cochran agrees. Cochran has been mentoring and training death doulas since 2010. She remembers her initial pull to death doula work after working for several years in acute care and oncology. She remembers how it became “overwhelmingly clear” that “so much needless suffering was going on, and I wanted to be a part of changing that.”

When our loved ones are dying, we certainly work diligently to end needless suffering. But much of human suffering is emotional and psychological. Physical pain can be alleviated through medicine, but what of the pain of grief? Just as more and more American women have turned to birth doulas to help buoy their courage and strength as they traverse the landscape of labor and delivery, more and more Americans – should they know death doulas exist – will turn to death doulas to companion them through the wilderness of loss.

So, what to look for when hiring a death doula? Consider these three simple points.

  1. Seek out someone who has experience and training. Seek out a certified death doula, if possible. A growing number of organizations offer quality end-of-life doula training. Inquire if a certified and/or trained doula works in your vicinity. If possible, interview more than one potential candidate to ascertain which doula will be the best match for your situation. Inquire about their training, past experience, philosophy in holding vigil and what specific comfort measures they can bring to both the dying and the bereaved.
  2. Seek online and/or phone support as needed. Trained death doulas may not live in your area, but in the age of Skype and FaceTime, one can still benefit from a virtual companion. While there is much to be said for face-to-face interaction and the healing power of comforting touch, it is better to have quality support than to go without care. If you are the primary caregiver for a dying relative or friend, reaching out to expand your own support network is especially a very good idea.
  3. Read and research about the doula approach to caring for the dying. It’s certainly possible to bring key aspects of doula caregiving into one’s personal experience with family and friends. Knowledge and insight gained can help you strengthen your confidence and expand your skill set as you offer your presence in vigil for the dying.

Each month, I receive emails from individuals interested in finding an end-of-life doula. “Can you help me find a death doula? My grandfather is dying.” Or “My mother is nearing death and I’m alone in caring for her, can you recommend an end-of-life doula who can support us?” Such requests carry the weight of a great deal of sadness. It’s helpful to remember that we don’t have to walk through the valley of bereavement alone. Whether our grieving is extremely complicated or pretty straightforward, it is real. It hurts. And death doulas are here to offer up their compassion and skill. They hold us as we hold our sorrow.

Complete Article HERE!

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05/23/17

‘Living well is a daily choice, dying well takes planning’

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by Liz Walsh

PHIL is lying in his hospice bed. There are tubes in his nose, delivering oxygen to his lungs.

He is attached to a monitoring machine, a beloved rug covering his now-frail body.

It is hard for him to lift his head from his pillow. Aged in his 60s, he is dying of cancer.

His life is no longer measured in milestones. Or years lived. Or career achievements. His life is now measured in days.

 

But his hospital room – inside the 16-bed Mary Potter Hospice in North Adelaide – is not filled with the gloom of impending death, but rather a celebration of life. Because every day, every hour, Phil is still living.

This is palliative care: where life and death swirl around each other in a strange and powerful dance.

But while death has always been a part of the human experience, palliative care – specialist care for the dying – is a relatively new concept.

Palliative care began in the United Kingdom as part of the hospice movement in the 1960s and is now widely used outside of traditional hospices, offered also in hospitals, nursing homes and private houses.

As Palliative Care SA explains of its purpose: “Living well is a daily choice, dying well takes planning”.

Before Phil dies, he has one wish: to walk his daughter, Sophie, down the aisle as she weds the love of her life. Sophie’s wedding is months away, Phil doesn’t have that time.

In steps the Mary Potter Foundation, the fundraising charitable arm of the hospice.

It is the job of the foundation’s executive director, Cathy Murphy, and her team to fulfil wishes, make memories, create calm and fill the hospice with life-affirming experiences. Murphy has been in her role for eight years.

Eight years.

Eight years surrounded by death: that scary unknown that eventually comes looking for us all. But working so close to death, for Murphy, is not scary; instead she describes it as a privilege.

“The human spirit is a wonderful thing and dying people can teach you so much about what’s important,” she says. “We have people from all walks of life in here and the person with nothing and the person with so-called-everything become the same person when they’re lying in a hospice bed and their life is being measured in months, weeks or days … it’s a great reminder that today is today.”

According to the World Health Organisation, palliative care improves the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing life-threatening illness. It combines the prevention and relief of pain with the treatment of other physical, psychosocial and spiritual issues.

In the 4th century, hospices were places of rest for travellers, but in the 19th century, a religious order established hospices for the dying in Ireland and London. The modern hospice concept originated and gained momentum in England after the founding of St Christopher’s Hospice in 1967. It was founded by Dame Cicely Saunders, widely regarded as the founder of the modern hospice movement.

Patient and Family Councillor Sigourney Reschke

That movement today sees hospices like Mary Potter, which was established in 1976, concern themselves with the task of giving the dying the best days of their lives.

Murphy explains: “It’s not about changing the outcome, it’s about changing the experience.”

She says many express a desire to die at home, but for various reasons – for example, complex medical needs, or inadequate support at home – it is not always possible. And that’s when a hospice becomes vital.

Mary Potter Hospice concerns itself not only with the physical wellbeing of patients – and its medical staff work hard to ensure a patient’s pain medication is sufficient – but it offers a range of therapies including music and art therapy. It has a team of volunteers who record and write a patient’s biography. Each room has access to the outdoors. It caters for special pet visits.

It sounds lovely, but we don’t talk about it. In fact, Palliative Care SA is concerned that people do not discuss death and consider palliative care soon enough because of a misconception it is something to be fearful of.

“We completely understand people might imagine that by considering palliative care hope is dashed,” the organisation states. “But the reality is palliative care is about ‘living’ and focuses on providing people with emotional and spiritual support, pain relief and comfort care enabling them and their family to be empowered to make the most of time remaining.”

So, the organisation hopes that Palliative Care Week – which starts tomorrow and runs until May 28 – will provoke discussion about what it is to have a good death.

I n a society that values its youth and celebrates those who defy their age, is a good death something we strive for? Sigourney Reschke is the manager of patient and family counselling at Mary Potter. She says that the hospice works in conjunction with the hundreds of dying patients it sees each year, to bring about a good death, which is different for each person.

“(A good death) might be to be surrounded by people who you love in a comfortable, warm, safe environment, where you have the opportunity to say the things you need to say, to say goodbye … but that’s not the same for everybody,” she says.

“What we try to do is make those wishes come true for whatever that person and their family hopes to achieve in their time with us.”

Murphy explains that the foundation aims to raise more than $1.2 million annually so that it can help give people the good death they deserve. They receive no government funding and rely on donors.

Staff at the Mary Potter Hospice: registered nurse Luke Peeters, Patient and Family Councillor Sigourney Reschke and Executive Director of the Mary Potter Foundation Cathy Murphy.

“Our aim, when a patient comes in, is to give them the best day possible,” she says. “What is the best day when you know your time is quite finite? It could be a drive to the beach to have a cup of coffee because that’s something you’ve always done. It could be a date night in the hospice with someone you love.”

It could be like Phil: walking his daughter down the aisle. In Phil’s case, the hospice and foundation were able to organise a wedding – from the photographer to the flowers to the champagne to the guest list – in four days.

The commitment ceremony was held in the multi-faith chapel and the medical team worked with the father so that he was strong enough to get out of bed and walk his daughter down a makeshift aisle.

Phil isn’t alone. Patient after patient experiences their best day for as long as they can in the hospice environment.

Murphy talks about an 18-year-old girl who spent her final days at the hospice who wanted to go shopping and so the foundation organised for a local dress shop to bring in racks of clothes for her to try on; then there was the younger couple who wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day in the way they did each year and so the foundation organised the specific pate, crackers, bubbles and flowers that were their Valentine’s Day tradition.

There was the man who was allowed one last visit to his favourite pub for a final round of beer with his friends. The man who had not seen his family for years, who was reunited in his final days.

Reschke says people are often surprised what they find when they visit Mary Potter.

“People don’t expect to come here where it’s light and there’s a lot of laughter and a huge amount of life and people smile,” she says.

“We laugh a lot, we love a lot. It’s sad, but we have a lot of fun, too.”

Across Australia there are 190 palliative medicine specialists, and in South Australia the Mary Potter Hospice is a key public and private provider of palliative care services, that – given the ageing population – will only increase in demand.

But, as a society, we’re not keen on talking about death. Reschke says: “Death is still a taboo subject and one that is hard to talk about and be open about because it’s scary and we don’t know what happens, we don’t know what that looks like or feels like, it’s a topic that is still hard to talk about.”

So, the role of palliative care is to demystify death, to take away the fear of facing it. “We are a resilient race in terms of being able to face what is happening,” Murphy says. “Not everybody can reach acceptance, but the aim here is to help people find peace.”

Palliative care is a very specific branch of medicine that many in the medical profession argue is becoming more important, especially as society debates the merits of voluntary euthanasia. And that’s a fair point: if palliative care works, why do we need a debate about euthanasia?

Former director of palliative care at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Dr Mary Brooksbank, has written extensively on this very conundrum and muses: “I’ve watched many people die peaceful deaths which could easily have been traumatic and painful, including my father. I can understand why people want to alleviate suffering at the end of life and why they think voluntary euthanasia might be a compassionate way of achieving that. But with good palliative care, no one dying an expected death needs to die in extreme, agonising pain.

“I believe it is inappropriate to be having a debate in our society about euthanasia until every single health professional knows how to relieve pain and address suffering properly.”

Brooksbank argues that while Australia has a specialist stream of very competent palliative care professionals, the workforce can’t meet the needs of the entire population.

“A lot of work is being done to upskill doctors and nurses, and increasingly they are delivering top-quality care.

“The reality is though, particularly with our ageing population, that the whole palliative care sector is desperately under-resourced.”

Dr Charlotte Griffiths has dual training in both medical oncology and palliative care and works between the oncology ward at Calvary Hospital and the Mary Potter Hospice.

“As challenging as it is, it is work that I find rewarding and I feel I am making a difference to people,” she says.

“I’m able to manage people through what can be the most vulnerable and difficult time of their life and trying to make that a little bit easier along with supporting their family.

Dr Charlotte Griffiths at the Mary Potter Hospice

“Every single patient you treat leaves some kind of lasting impression and it teaches you how fragile life is, how important it is to make the best of every day.”

Just like Dr Griffiths, Luke Peeters works between the oncology unit at Calvary and the Mary Potter Hospice.

Aged just 25, the palliative care nurse has a greater appreciation for death than most of his generation’s youth. He sees death almost daily, and it has had a positive effect on him.

“It has taught me that life can be taken away from you in a matter of months,” he says. “A lot of patients tell me: ‘Experience your life, give it a go, because you don’t know unless you try’.

“One patient I remember was young, she was 43, and I told her that I had always wanted to learn another language and she said: ‘Well, hurry up and do it’. So, I’ve started French.”

Following other patient advice, last year, Peeters travelled to Europe – his first overseas trip – and this year, he started playing the piano again after 10 years away from the instrument.

“You can get so focused on: ‘I need to get a degree, I need to get money, I need to buy a house, I need to buy a car’ and you don’t stop to think: ‘What do I actually want from life?’

“Working with people at the end stage of their life and the advice they have given me, I have taken that on board.”

But for all the life that pulsates inside the Mary Potter Hospice, there is no denying that death is there, too.

And the people who work there regularly shed tears with patients’ families and friends and, later, by themselves in the staff coffee room. Peeters says: “I was always told as a nurse, don’t get too attached to your patients because then you can’t do your job properly, but as an oncology and hospice nurse, you look after these patients, generally, for an extended period of time. You know their daughter’s name and how she’s going at university and you get to know all their friends as well. It’s like you’re a part of their community.

“It is hard when they pass.”

Including Phil.

It was a Thursday when Phil watched his daughter, Sophie, wed her husband-to-be in a love-filled commitment ceremony hosted by the Mary Potter Hospice in its on-site multi-faith chapel.

He died three days later.

And while, yes, tears flowed, so too did immense feelings of joy and love. At the end, in his hospice room, kindness and laughter prevailed.

And precious memories were created in the final days of a man’s life. A lovely, fitting death.

Complete Article HERE!

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05/18/17

New nationwide study indicates patients are often prescribed potentially futile drugs in their final days

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Nearly half of older adults in Sweden take 10 or more medications in their last months of life, according to a new study reported in The American Journal of Medicine

Older adults often receive drugs of questionable benefit during their last months of life, according to the first study conducted on the burden of end-of-life medications across an entire population. The authors advocate for clinical guidelines to support physicians when they face the decision to continue or discontinue medications near the end of life. Their findings are published in The American Journal of Medicine.

The simultaneous use of multiple medications has become commonplace among older adults. In high-income countries, it has previously been estimated that 25% to 40% of people aged 65 years or older are prescribed at least five medications. This practice is known as “polypharmacy,” and can lead to drug-drug interactions and serious adverse effects.

In the context of end-of-life care, polypharmacy also raises important ethical questions about the potential futility of treatments close to death.

“People with life-limiting illness often receive medications whose benefit is unlikely to be achieved within their remaining lifespan,” writes lead author Lucas Morin, of the Aging Research Center at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. “However, previous studies have been conducted in selected samples of individuals. Future research and clinical guidelines need to be informed by findings that are generalizable beyond a specific illness or care setting.”

The authors identified over half a million adults over 65 years of age who died in Sweden between 2007 and 2013, and reconstructed their drug prescription history for each of the last 12 months of life through the Swedish Prescribed Drug Register. The characteristics of study participants at time of death were assessed through record linkage with the National Patient Register, the Social Services Register, and the Swedish Education Register. Of note, over-the-counter drugs were not taken into account in this investigation.

The study resulted in two main findings:

First, the burden of medications increases as death approaches. The proportion of older adults exposed to at least ten different prescription drugs rose from 30% to 47% over the course of the last year before death. Older adults who died from cancer had the largest increase in the number of drugs. Individuals living in institutions were found to receive a greater number of medications than those living in the community, but the number of drugs increased more slowly for those living in an institution.

Second, the researchers found that polypharmacy near the end of life is fueled not only by drugs prescribed for the purpose of symptom management (e.g. analgesics), but also by the frequent continuation of long-term preventive treatments and disease-targeted drugs. For instance, during their last month of life, a large proportion of older adults used platelet antiaggregants (45%), beta-blockers (41%), ACE inhibitors (21%), vasodilators (17%), statins (16%), calcium channel blockers (15%), or potassium-sparing agents (12%).

“The clinical benefit of drugs aiming at preventing cardiovascular diseases during the final month of life is at the very least questionable. Physicians should consider discontinuing drugs that may be effective and otherwise appropriate, but whose potential harms outweigh the benefits that patients can reasonably expect before death occurs.” However, the authors noted that “the process of de-prescribing requires timely dialogue between the patient, family, and physician, and close monitoring of symptoms. It is also essential that patients and their relatives receive clear information about their options in terms of palliative care in order to counter the feeling of abandonment that they may experience when treatments are withdrawn.”

The authors call for the development of clinical guidelines to support physicians in their effort to reduce potentially futile drug treatments near the end of life.

Complete Article HERE!

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05/14/17

We’re Bad at Death. Can We Talk?

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A dialysis center in Paterson, N.J. Illnesses like renal failure often prove terminal, yet their uncertain progression can make it hard for patients and their families to start the conversation about palliative care and hospice.

By

Her last conversation should not have been with me.

I’d just arrived for the night shift in the I.C.U. when her breathing quickened. I didn’t know much about the patient, and the little I did know wasn’t good: She had cancer. Her lungs were filled with fluid. As her breathing deteriorated and her oxygen levels plunged, I searched the chart for her wishes in an emergency. Nothing.

I explained to her how rapidly her condition had worsened and asked if she’d discussed intubation and mechanical ventilation. She shook her head; she didn’t think it would get so bad so fast. Together we called her husband, who had just left for the evening, but there was no answer.

“If we do it, when will I…” she paused. “When will I wake up?”

I hesitated. It was as likely as not that she wouldn’t. I explained that we never leave patients intubated longer than necessary, but when people were as sick as she was it was impossible to know when — or even if — they would be extubated.

“O.K.,” she said. “Do it.”

There are, no doubt, differing opinions on what constitutes a good death. But this, inarguably, was not one.

For years the medical profession has largely fumbled the question of what we should do when there’s nothing more we can do. A new wave of research sheds light on what patients want at the end of life, and who is — or isn’t — getting it.

Despite growing recognition that more care isn’t necessarily better care, particularly at the end of life, many Americans still receive an enormous dose of medicine in their final days. On average, patients make 29 visits to the doctor’s office in their last six months.

In their last month alone, half of Medicare patients go to an emergency department, one-third are admitted to an I.C.U., and one-fifth will have surgery — even though 80 percent of patients say they hope to avoid hospitalization and intensive care at the end of life.

Medicare spending for patients in the last year of life is six times what it is for other patients, and accounts for a quarter of the total Medicare budget — a proportion that has remained essentially unchanged for the past three decades.

It’s not clear all that care improves how long or how well people live. Patients receiving aggressive medical care at the end of life don’t seem to live any longer, and some work suggests a less aggressive approach buys more time. Despite a popular misconception, doctors don’t die much differently: Physicians use hospice care and die in hospitals at rates similar to everyone else.

Two interventions have consistently been shown to help patients live their final days in accordance with their wishes: earlier conversations about their goals and greater use of palliative care services, which emphasize symptom control and greater psychological and spiritual well-being — and which recognize that longer survival is only part of what patients want.

Patients who engage in advance care planning are less likely to die in the hospital or to receive futile intensive care. Family members have fewer concerns and experience less emotional trauma if they have the opportunity to talk about their loved one’s wishes. And earlier access to palliative care has consistently been linked to fewer symptoms, less distress, better quality of life — and sometimes longer lives.

We’ve made significant progress in recent years: The availability of palliative care services has increased 150 percent over the past decade, and compared with patients in other developed countries, older Americans with cancer are now the least likely to die in a hospital (22 percent versus up to 51 percent). But not everyone has benefited from the palliative care movement: Large disparities remain by geography, race and type of illness.

Ninety percent of hospitals with more than 300 beds now have a palliative care program, but only 56 percent of smaller hospitals do. Patients treated at for-profit and public safety net hospitals (known for taking in those who have no insurance) are much less likely than those in nonprofit hospitals to have access to palliative care.

Complete Article HERE!

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