Ordering up more tests and surgeries for dying patients is easy. Getting patients the end-of-life care they deserve takes much more effort.
My 92-year-old father fell one Saturday night a few months ago. My mother could not pick him up. Her brother was not answering his cellphone, so she called 911. An ambulance crew brought him to the hospital.
The emergency-room physician ordered a CT scan. A spot on the scan worried him, so he ordered an MRI, which confirmed that a tumor the size and shape of a pear was occupying the frontal lobes of his brain. Meanwhile, a chest X-ray gave the physician some reason to suspect pneumonia—the image of the lungs looked cloudy, though it lacked the focal infiltrates that usually signify that condition—so he admitted my father to the hospital.
I took the first flight from Washington, D.C., and arrived in his room at a suburban-Chicago hospital at about 9 a.m. He was sitting in a chair, and all sorts of white wires were emerging from under his flimsy hospital gown. His index finger, because of the oxygen monitor attached to it, glowed like E.T.’s. Still, my father was acting like himself. When I entered the room, he mischievously needled me: “How are you doing, schmucko?”
The monitor above his bed showed a regular heart rate and oxygen saturation of 100 percent. The IV pole towering over him showed two empty bags of antibiotics.
I squeezed my dad’s hand, and we talked for about 20 minutes. Then I stepped out of the room to find the doctor to ask some questions. Standing at the nurses’ station, I was introduced to a neurosurgeon and a neuro-oncologist, who were ready to talk to me about my father’s condition and treatment options.
My father had a large brain tumor that could not be cured and would end his life. No neurosurgeon or oncologist could change the inevitable. Especially in light of his age, any intervention that involved drilling into his skull and biopsying or removing part of such a big tumor would only worsen his quality of life. We didn’t want to interfere with him talking with his children and grandchildren and playing with his great-grandchildren during the time he had left.
But no one had taken the time to ask him about his wishes regarding medical treatment, even though he was competent to make decisions and was himself a physician. No one asked my mother and brother, who were with him in the emergency room and at the hospital, if he had an advance-care directive or wanted to have a do-not-resuscitate order. My father, a pediatrician, was one of those doctors who hated getting any medical care. Fifteen years before, he had walked around for three weeks insisting that the pain at the bottom of his rib cage was just acid indigestion. Eventually, he consented to go to his internist and was diagnosed with a heart attack, which required a bypass operation. Everything about the way he’d lived meant he certainly did not want any brain surgery with no chance of a cure. He wanted to die at home having shared his final days with his family.
Since the mid-1980s, I have worked to make this type of end-of-life care possible. I am a physician too. Once my father was admitted to a hospital, it took all my expertise and experience to arrange the kind of care he needed—and prevent the medical system from taking over and prescribing unnecessary interventions.
It was easy for the hospital physician to call a neurosurgeon and neuro-oncologist and for them to assess my father early on a Sunday morning before I arrived. But when I asked if we could get my father a palliative-care consult on Sunday, the answer was a definitive no. All we got was the number of the hospital’s palliative-care service; we had to call the next day, during normal business hours, to arrange a future consultation.
It was easy for my mother to call 911 and have him transported to the hospital. But if he fell again, there would be no 911-like number for my mother to call for urgent assistance short of EMTs and ambulances.
It would be easy for the emergency-room physician to admit my father again, and even put him in the intensive-care unit. But no one suggested that he and my mother get mental health care or see a grief counselor to cope with his new terminal diagnosis.
The hospital was no place for my father to spend his last days. To thwart the medical system’s momentum to lard on ever more costly, unnecessary, and unwanted interventions—and to convince the medical staff we were serious about no—I took my father’s oxygen monitor off his finger, disconnected his cardiac monitor, insisted that the nurse remove his IV, and asked the physician to discharge him as soon as possible.
Beyond a suggestion that we find a home-care agency to call, the hospital offered no assistance in getting him help at home. Ironically, the aide transporting him out of the hospital volunteered that she knew someone who was available to provide home care. Through my father’s former nurse and someone she knew, we ended up getting a talented and kind set of cousins—immigrants from the Philippines—who were able to provide care.
Despite the medical system, my father did avoid further trips to the hospital, an ICU admission, and more antibiotics and machines. He spent the rest of his time at home and was able to say goodbye to everyone. And being at home was cheaper. We still don’t have all the bills, but the tab just for about 12 hours in the hospital came to $19,276.83. In contrast, the more than 200 hours of home care he got over the next 10 days cost only $6,093.
Many Americans are puzzled about why end-of-life care costs are so high, and why physicians cannot seem to reduce them. My father’s story is the answer.
It has less to do with physicians’ and hospitals’ financial incentives to admit more patients and perform more medical interventions, and more to do with the effort required to order and provide human care. For providers, ordering tests and consultations and prescribing antibiotics is easier than listening to and diagnosing the particular needs of the person in front of them. It is easier for the medical system to marshal all sorts of costly interventions—MRI scans, hospital admissions, neurosurgeons, cancer chemotherapy, and the rest—but harder, if not impossible, to accept the inevitable and provide symptom management, grief counseling, and home care to patients and their family. Until the system takes account of the whole patient and provides the whole package of humane care as the default—so that it’s routine and made available 24/7 with one physician’s order, just as chemotherapy or an MRI would be—Americans will not be able to finally change end-of-life care and reduce those costs.
A terminal diagnosis is inherently traumatic for patients and their families. My father’s experience at home before his death needs to become the standard of care. And not just for patients with pushy sons who have medical training and know how to speak with physicians, disconnect cardiac monitors, and firmly refuse the interventions that our health-care system is so predisposed to offer.
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The professionals who guide dying people
Doulas are tasked with maintaining a sense of calm for dying people and those around them, and opening the conversation about death and loss, topics that can often be taboo
In October of 2016, Gregory Gelhorn ran the Twin Cities Marathon. Seven months later, he was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes nerve cells to break down, resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy. The average life expectancy of an ALS patient, once diagnosed, ranges from about two to five years. The cause of ALS is not fully understood, and no cure is known. Gelhorn was in his mid-40s.
“It was a shock,” said Kathy Fessler, Gelhorn’s sister. “He was always the one who took the best care of himself.”
Dying from ALS is a singularly awful experience; the disease causes the body to progressively deteriorate while the mind remains clear and lucid. Gelhorn had loved being active. He had played three sports in high school, coached girls’ basketball and served as a travel director at Lakeville North high school in Lakeville, Minnesota. The disease progressed rapidly; soon, he was using a wheelchair and relied on a BiPAP machine to breathe. Doctors estimated he only had a few months left. Gelhorn and his family – his two teenage children, wife, parents, and siblings – began to grieve.
In the midst of it all, Fessler happened to see an article in the Star Tribune about Christy Marek, a certified end-of-life doula who lived only a few miles away. Fessler contacted Marek, who soon took on Gelhorn as a patient.
A doula, typically, is a professional who helps mothers during pregnancy and childbirth. Unlike midwives, doulas do not serve in a medical capacity; rather, their primary role is to provide emotional, physical and psychological support.
The practice originated in the natural childbirth movement in the US in the 1970s, alongside the Lamaze method and the popularity of alternatives to hospital birth, like water birth and home birth. That same generation of Americans who were having children in the 70s are now approaching their twilight years, and the practice of serving as a doula has expanded in scope. End-of-life doulas use the same concept as birth doulas: they provide support for the dying.
“On all sorts of levels, I think the Baby Boomers, that generation has just been here to shake things up,” said Marek. “The natural birthing movement, they did that. And now it’s the same thing. They’re saying, no, I don’t want the death my parents had. We are rich in possibility, why can’t I make this whatever I want it to be?”
End-of-life doulas are sometimes called death doulas, though many have reservations about the term.
“To me, end-of-life is a process,” said Marek. “The work I do with people isn’t just about that one point in time when somebody dies.”
Although doulas are not required to have medical training, many come from the healthcare field. Shelby Kirillin, an end-of-life doula based in Richmond, Virginia, has also been a neurointensive trauma nurse for over 20 years. It was her experiences in the neuro-ICU that led her towards becoming a doula. Many of the deaths she had seen there, she explained, struck her as cold, sterile and lonely.
“I just couldn’t imagine that the person dying had ever envisioned their death to be like that,” she said. “Dying isn’t just medical. It’s spiritual.”
Fascinated by the idea of a structured approach to end-of-life care that prioritized the individual wishes of the dying, Kirillin enrolled in a doula training course with the International End of Life Doula Association (Inelda), a not-for-profit that promotes the approach. Although there is no centralized regulatory body for doulas, training and certification programs are offered by a number of organizations, including Inelda and the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.
“There’s so much fear and anxiety about death,” said Janie Rakow, the president of Inelda. “The doulas are there to calm everyone down. They work with the dying and their families to educate, to explain what’s happening. That what they’re seeing is part of the dying process.”
Rakow and her business partner, hospice social worker Henry Fersko-Weiss, founded Inelda in 2015 to train doulas and promote their use in hospices, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters. Their training program covers topics like vigil planning, active listening and doula self-care.
Part of what doulas do is open the conversation about death and loss, topics that can often be taboo or deeply uncomfortable for the dying or their family.
“Can you imagine if a woman was going through labor and no one around her was talking about it or preparing for it? There’d be an uproar if we treated birth like we treat death,” said Kirillin. “You have to talk about it. You’re dying and you’re no longer going to be here.”
Doulas help their patients plan out their deaths: talking with them about their wishes, and how they would like to spend their last day. Some prefer to die in a hospital, others at home. They decide who they want around them, whether it’s with all their family and friends, or a religious figure, or alone. They choose the details of the setting, whether they want to hear music, whether they want to have someone hold their hand, and what rituals – religious or secular – they want performed.
Doulas often also perform legacy work, the practice of guiding the dying to create tangible artifacts to leave behind for their loved ones. Sometimes, it’s a photo album, a collection of recipes, or a video archive. One of Rakow’s patients wrote a series of letters to her pregnant daughter’s unborn child, expressing her hopes and wishes for a granddaughter she knew she would never meet.
As death approaches, doulas are tasked with maintaining a sense of calm for dying people and those around them.
“One of my patients this past spring, as he was transitioning, he started to vomit,” said Kirillin. “I reminded everyone that when a woman is laboring a birth, sometimes she vomits. It’s the body’s natural way. Let’s just make him comfortable.”
Finally, the last part of a doula’s work comes a few weeks afterwards, when the doula meets with the deceased’s loved ones to reprocess and discuss everything that has occurred.
“It’s after the casserole brigade has come and gone, and everyone’s gone back to work,” Kirillin said. “We talk about grief and bereavement. You’re not going crazy. You can be happy and sad in the same moment. There is no timeline.”
Of course, the practice of guiding the dying on their final journey is not new. Death is not an unknown phenomenon, and the act of tending to the dying has existed as long as human civilization itself. Marek has a theory for why the need for a formalized approach to death has manifested now, in these particular circumstances – why the dying feel the need to contract a trained professional, rather than being able to rely on a more organic source of support.
“In America, a few generations ago, our communities were doing this work,” she said. “The reason the role is showing up in a formalized way now is that we don’t have those community ties any more, not in the same way, and certainly not the same level of responsibility to each other as used to be woven into our communities.”
Kirillin agreed: “I would love for our culture to never need me,” she said.
Much of doula work is the very definition of emotional labor, and though Janie Rakow suspects some doulas feel conflicted about taking money for their services, she sees the profession as no different from that of therapists or hospice workers.
“I had one of my patients tell me I wasn’t charging them enough,” she said, though Inelda also encourages pro bono work, and many doulas serve purely on a volunteer basis. She also cautions her doulas not to take on too many cases in a row, and to be cognizant of their own mental health. But, she said, the act of tending to the dying is not as depressing as many assume; rather, it can be very rewarding.
“When you sit with a dying person and they take their last breath, it is as amazing and awe-inspiring as someone taking their first,” said Kirillin. “It is important, and sad, and needs to be cherished.”
Gregory Gelhorn died in September 2018. He spent his last day in his home, surrounded by his family. Together, they watched a movie and listened to 90s prog-rock.
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It’s not easy nearing the end of your life, but that doesn’t mean you need to be stressed.
Death may be the ultimate stressful moment in our lives. Just thinking about the end is enough to cause your heart to beat faster. And while some levels of depression and anxiety are inevitable, those feelings need not overwhelm the death experience for you or your family. In fact, it’s possible to die well — to experience a sense of wellbeing as you approach the end. You can leave this life with a feeling of closure and a sense of contentment. That’s the difference between completing your life and merely ending it.
But stress disrupts well-being. It distracts you from prioritizing love, family, and dignity. Worry and fear interrupt precious time with family and friends. That’s no one’s idea of a good death. And while it’s easy to think you’ll skip this stressful step and go suddenly from a heart attack or stroke, the reality is the majority of us will need end-of-life care. So, put some thought and preparation into your passing now. Reducing stress will make it easier for you to say goodbye, and for your loved ones to let go. Here are six ways you can make dying the experience you want, rather than the experience you get.
Finalize Your Burial Arrangements
Preparing your burial arrangements lowers stress in several ways. For one, it puts you in control. Eliminate worry by outlining the type of service you want, the manner of internment, and the organ donation process. Burial arrangements also relieve financial stress from your family and friends. Carrying out your last wishes doesn’t have to be a financial burden for your family. So, find the best final expense insurance policy to cover costs. Or get a pre-paid funeral plan that kicks in after you’re gone. You’ll feel less stress knowing everything is taken care of.
Finally, by tending to your funeral arrangements yourself, your loved ones can focus more on spending time with you in your last day. And their grieving will be easier when they’re not weighed down with administrative tasks. Mourners often feel guilty devoting time to such business matters after a loved one dies.
Create a Living Will
If you become incapacitated before death, someone will have to make decisions for you. That’s a heavy responsibility to place on a family member or friend who may only have a rough idea of your wishes. But without a health care power of attorney (or proxy) to speak for you, you may end up being kept on life support longer than you’d prefer, or the opposite. An advanced directive or “living will” is a legal document that lists specific medical treatments you wish to receive and those you don’t. The directive takes the decision-making burden off your family’s shoulder.
To get started, have the end-of-life conversation with one or two people you would want to serve as your proxies. And also talk with your doctor so that everyone is on the same page. Living will forms vary by state. So, download your state’s advanced directive form to get started. If you don’t have the resources to create a living will, other forms of non-legal directives can work as some form of “proof” for your wishes. For example, write a letter to a family member expressing your wishes. Or record audio/video explaining what you want. While these aren’t formally recognized legal documents, they work better than nothing at all.
One thing that makes dying harder is knowing you’re leaving behind unsettled issues, old hurts, and past grudges. When possible, make amends with those you’ve hurt or who’ve hurt you. Now is the time for unburdening yourself and being honest with those you love. While you can leave those hurt feelings behind, your loved ones will carry them after you’re gone. And many will regret they didn’t say something when they had the chance. Knowing this will make leaving this life more stressful for you.
So, don’t put off making amends. Request a private audience with a loved one or wait for the right moment to broach the subject. Be honest and take responsibility for your part in the situation. Refer to the past event/issues that caused the rift, but don’t relive it all over again. And don’t bring up their responsibility; just explain your regrets and apologize. They will reciprocate. Think of this less as a discussion and more as a confession. So, listen more than you talk. The goal of making amends is to replace hurt and anger with forgiveness and love.
Revisit the Past
For those facing imminent death, the bulk of the conversation often focuses on medical needs, medications, or staff visits. While these are immediate needs are necessary, don’t forget the past. Revisiting old memories help us replace the current situation with one of our choosing — at least for a moment. Rather than a form of denial of death, recalling memories is an affirmation of our lives and our effect on others. For friends and family, recounting a past event is a handy way to show how a dying loved one impacted their lives. It’s often difficult for the dying person or loved one to find the right words in these moments. Words of condolence or regret can seem empty. But a pleasant or meaningful story can be a beautiful expression of our gratitude.
Recalling old memories is also a stimulating activity for Alzheimer’s patients. It fosters emotional connections and reduces anxiety. Use family albums, music, videos, or heirlooms to help prompt memories. Encourage family and friends who can’t travel or live too far away to send a short letter or audio recording. And don’t avoid humor. Include funny moments, old jokes, or humorous anecdotes. It may feel awkward at first, but laughter is nature’s way of helping us relieve stress and anxiety while connecting us.
Use Music Therapy
Studies suggest that music therapy has emotional and physical benefits for hospice and palliative care patients. Researchers found that patients who listened to music reported “less pain, anxiety … as well as an increase in feelings of well-being afterward.” Music therapy has a profound effect on people with cognitive and mental decline. The rhythmic nature of music requires little mental processing and helps stimulate memories. Choose music that your loved one enjoys, tunes from their childhood era, or a neutral New Age track. But don’t overstimulate; that can create stress. Take note of the other noises in the room. When mixed with many different sounds, even soothing music at a low volume to create a cacophony of stress.
Ask for Pain Medication When You Need It
Palliative care is about making patients feel as comfortable as possible until the end. And pain management and medication are part of this process. Unlike other vital signs, hospitals and staff can’t measure your pain. You have to help them know when you’re feeling discomfort. Still, some patients forego their pain meds because they want to stay awake to see their friends and family. Others see pain medication as “bad” substances or only for the weak or needy. But these are myths. Pain meds are integral to the palliative care process. And there’s no reason to forego pain medications that’s more important their your comfort. You may think you’re being strong for your family, but having to watch you fight intense discomfort will only increase their stress levels. Ask for pain medication when you need it.
These six tips will increase well-being and reduce stress when you’re nearing the end of your life. But once you’re faced with death, it’s important to know when it’s time to let go. Too often, we hold on too long out of a primal urge to keep going or fear of leaving our loved ones. Death is a natural process we all share. Take comfort in that immutable fact. Let your loved ones know you’re ready to go. They, too, will hold on to you, fearing that letting you go is “giving up.” This creates enormous amounts of stress. When it’s time, reassure them that — while you’re not ready to die — you have accepted it.
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Hospice’s Biggest Fans Now Have Second Thoughts
By Blake Farmer
The booming hospice industry is changing what it looks like to die in the U.S. Rather than under the care of doctors and nurses in a hospital, more Americans than not now spend their final days in familiar surroundings, often at home, being cared for by loved ones.
While hospice has been a beautiful experience during a difficult time for many families, a yearlong reporting project by WPLN finds end-of-life support often falls short of what they need.
“Our long-term care system in this country is really using family, unpaid family members. That’s our situation,” says professor Katherine Ornstein, who studies the last year of life at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “As we increasingly see that we want to provide home-based care, we’re relying even more on caregivers. And it does take a toll.”
The federal government has found that families often misunderstand what they’re entitled to when they elect hospice. And many still have to pay out of pocket for nursing home services or private caregivers, which Medicare rarely covers — all while the hospice agency is paid nearly $200 a day.
Hospice has catapulted from a sector led by nonprofits and volunteers to one dominated by investor-owned companies — including several based in the Nashville area such as Amedysis and Compassus — with more growth expected.
In the process, hospice has ballooned into a nearly $19 billion industry. It’s now the most profitable service sector in health care, as the industry’s business model relies heavily on unpaid family caregivers.
“This seems like it’s in sync with patient-centered care,” says Ornstein, “but the reality of that situation may be very, very challenging.
“I think we have a responsibility to really think about whether the families can handle this.”
‘A Longer-Term Thing’
The Fortners could be the poster family for hospice of old. On an overcast morning last May, they gathered with dozens of other grieving families at Alive Hospice’s residence in Murfreesboro for the nonprofit agency’s annual butterfly release.
McCoy Fortner, 8, opened a triangular box and a dormant monarch began to twitch.
“You can also whisper to it to tell the person in heaven what you want to say,” he explained.
He held the winged messenger on his forefinger until the black and orange wings perked up and stretched out. He relayed a few words to his father, Jeremy, who died two years ago of cancer.
“Thank you for being my best dad,” he said as the monarch took flight.
McCoy’s mom, Elicia, stood behind her son with tears in her eyes. Her husband called off endless chemotherapy. He was on hospice at home and then moved to a residential hospice facility where he passed away. Between the two, he was on hospice for 10 days.
Elicia Fortner said she just wishes they had stopped curative treatment and switched to hospice sooner.
“I don’t know if I really understood the options,” she said. “I didn’t realize hospice could be a longer-term thing.”
The Hospice Nudge
The average amount of time patients spend on hospice has been creeping up steadily, amid an industry-wide push that has aligned most of the interests in health care. The Affordable Care Act gave hospitals new incentives to reduce the number of deaths that occur in the hospital or shortly after a patient’s stay. Some studies suggest that’s caused an uptick in hospice use. And many doctors have been sold on the idea of prioritizing quality of life in the final days.
More patients are also eligible: Hospice has expanded beyond cancer to any terminal illness.
Very few people now die in a hospice facility. More often, hospice is received at home or, increasingly, in a nursing home.
But some of the biggest end-of-life evangelists are beginning to see unintended consequences of putting families in charge of the death bed.
Jessica Zitter, an emergency physician in Oakland, Calif., wrote a book about needlessly dying in the hospital on ventilators with very little consideration about quality of life. She advocates for prioritizing comfort care, which often means recommending hospice. When a patient has been told they have less than six months to live, Medicare and most private insurance will allow them to sign up for hospice services meant primarily to help them die in peace.
Zitter filmed one documentary called “Extremis.” It showed the impossible end-of-life decisions that have to be made in a hospital.
Then, she decided to make a second documentary, still in production, following a husband who took his wife home on hospice after ending cancer treatment.
Zitter met with Rick Tash and Bambi Fass for the nine weeks she spent in at-home hospice. The storyline didn’t play out as expected.
“It made me realize how naïve I — the doctor of death — was,” Zitter says. “This is this beautiful love story of these two people. Then you hear him say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’”
Tash became overwhelmed — from managing Fass’s morphine doses to getting her to the toilet every few hours.
With at-home hospice, everyday caretaking — and even many tasks that would be handled by professionals in a hospital or nursing home — are left to the family.
Medicare requires agencies to provide a few baths and a nurse check-in each week. But government data reveals that, on average, a nurse or aide is there at the house only about half an hour a day.
Zitter sat Tash down at his kitchen table, with his granddaughter on his lap. She encouraged calling in reinforcements.
“Asking for more support from hospice, if you need it, is really important,” she told him.
“Yeah, but what they offered me was a volunteer for two hours, one day a week,” Tash responded.
“That’s it?” Zitter asked.
“That’s what they offered,” Tash said.
Zitter was stunned. She realized Rick was getting all hospice had to provide, and it wasn’t nearly enough.
“The good death isn’t as easy as you might think,” she says. “We’ve got to put some things in place here so we can make it more likely that people can achieve that.”
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Two brothers are combining palliative care expertise, linguistics and AI to encourage more effective conversations between doctors and people receiving end-of-life care.
One afternoon in the summer of 2018, Bob Gramling dropped by the small suite that serves as his lab in the basement of the University of Vermont’s medical school. There, in a grey lounge chair, an undergrad research assistant named Brigitte Durieux was doing her summer job, earphones plugged into a laptop. Everything normal, thought Bob.
Then he saw her tears.
Bob doesn’t baulk at tears. As a palliative care doctor, he has been at thousands of bedsides and had thousands of conversations, often wrenchingly difficult ones, about dying. But in 2007, when his father was dying of Alzheimer’s, Bob was struck by his own sensitivity to every word choice of the doctors and nurses, even though he was medically trained.
“If we [doctors] are feeling that vulnerable, and we theoretically have access to all the information we would want, it was a reminder to me of how vulnerable people without those types of resources are,” he says.
He began to do research into how dying patients, family members and doctors talk in these moments about the end of treatment, pain management and imminent death. Six years later, he received over $1 million from the American Cancer Society to undertake what became the most extensive study of palliative care conversations in the US.
The resulting database contains over 12,000 minutes and 1.2 million words of conversation involving 231 patients. This is the basis of the Vermont Conversation Lab, which Bob created to analyse this data and find features of those conversations that make patients and family members feel heard and understood.
Brigitte’s job in the lab that summer was simple: listen to moments of silence and categorise them. The idea was that they could indicate emotionally charged connections between doctor and patient. Once the silences were coded, they would be used to train a machine-learning algorithm to detect them automatically – and, with them, moments of emotional connection.
You might ask what place algorithms could possibly have in this sensitive realm. The reality is that healthcare communication needs help, especially in palliative care, where practitioners seek to bring patients to their deaths as meaningfully and painlessly as possible.
In 2014, the US Institute of Medicine made improving doctor-patient communication a priority in its landmark study, ‘Dying in America’. An analogous publication in the UK, Ambitions for Palliative and End of Life Care, emphasised the need for patients, family and caregivers to have “the opportunity for honest, sensitive and well-informed conversations about dying, death and bereavement”. It reiterated that doctors need to make those conversations possible.
Most of the resulting communications training seems to offer scripts and templates to help doctors deliver bad news and make decisions with patients. But this is not enough. In this context, doctors really need to understand conversations more broadly. They need to appreciate everyone’s role in a conversation. They need to learn the ability to listen and be silent. They need to confidently recover from conversational missteps.
“Oncologists are in general very uncomfortable with this kind of thing. They want to focus on treatment, and they talk eloquently about different protocols and clinical trials,” says Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, a programme director in the Behavioral Research Program at the US National Cancer Institute. She oversees funding on patient-doctor communication at the end of life. “But sitting in the place of being a listener is not something that clinicians are trained for or necessarily comfortable doing.”
Enter Bob Gramling. Hospitals track infection rates, bed occupancy and many other measures. Why not good conversations, too?
Amiable and serene, wearing a bracelet of Buddhist meditation beads, Bob sees a big role for artificial intelligence (AI) that can detect and measure the features of clinical interactions that matter to patients, then report those measurements to numbers-oriented healthcare systems.
Once such technology is widely available, he says, “we can incentivise our hospitals to build systems to improve those interactions and reward doctors for doing it”.
“How are you?” asks the nurse practitioner, who’s just come into the patient’s room.
“Fine,” the patient says. She’s a 55-year-old white woman with stage 4 breast cancer. Neither she nor the nurse practitioner know that she’ll be dead in five days.
“No, you’re not,” the nurse practitioner retorts.
“Oh, a loaded question,” the patient laughs.
“It’s been a long – well? No,” says her spouse.
“No,” says the patient. “It’s a polite question, it’s a polite answer.”
This is a snippet of a conversation in Bob’s database that he played to his brother David, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona. David recognised the dynamics of this specific moment. The people in that room hadn’t been talking about care or disease, but they had been doing something important in the conversation that would affect the quality of the care.
When the Gramlings’ father died, David flew home from a literature studies fellowship in Berlin. But years earlier, he’d been intimately involved as a caregiver, witnessing a “smörgåsbord of insane, irrational communication failures” with lawyers, nurses, nutritionists and priests.
For a year after their father’s death, the brothers were swallowed by family matters. As they emerged, they began talking about palliative care communication and linguistic research in healthcare settings, and began to collaborate professionally.
The most recent result is a book, Palliative Care Conversations, published in early 2019. It aims to show physicians how conversations work, such as how clinicians and patients often understand words and phrases differently. David looked at the conversations at a granular level, using the tools of a linguistic subfield called conversation analysis. He spent years listening to audio recordings of the conversations, noting moments worth closer analysis.
Meanwhile, Bob provided clinical details about medical culture. In the last few years, he has also hung out with jazz musicians, who are master communicators when they’re improvising, and visited the Stanford Literary Lab to see how digital tools can be applied to massive literary corpuses to understand patterns too diffuse for human readers to catch.
As the Gramlings note in the book, the above back-and-forth between patient, spouse and nurse practitioner is remarkable for a first exchange between strangers. They explain that’s because “the clinician is willing to risk conventional rapport-building pathways by contradicting the family member’s self-reported state of mind”. In other words, the physician has opened the door to a looser mode of relating – and it works.
Another conversation doesn’t go as well. It’s a “pragmatic failure”, as David would say.
“When I came in,” says the nurse practitioner, “I saw you were watching Scrubs.”
“Scrubs?” the patient says. He’s a 63-year-old black man with stage 4 kidney cancer, who will live for 135 more days.
“Have you ever seen Scrubs?” asks the nurse practitioner, who is white.
“Yeah,” the patient says. “No, I wasn’t watching Scrubs.”
As the exchange unfurls, it’s clear the patient and clinician won’t connect. The clinician then seems to want to force their way to the task at hand, and forget the small talk where rapport could be built.
“When you study communication in healthcare, you’ll see a lot of monologues from doctors,” Bob says. “I don’t mean that in an insulting way – it could be really good information.” In palliative care, he explains, conversations are different: “It might be just because it’s the nature of palliative care. It’s what we do and what our value is… there is a lot of turn-taking.” That’s another term he learned from his brother. It refers to the back-and-forth of conversation.
“This is not a clean, rational, logical experience that fits on an 8-and-a-half-by-11 piece of paper, it’s a human-engaged relational endeavour,” he adds. “If we’re going to develop metrics for that, we’d better be looking at both the beauty and the science from many angles.”
Research on end-of-life communicating and decision-making typically looks at what doctors or nurses say. It rarely takes into account the deeper linguistic and cognitive factors that influence patients’ abilities to communicate in the first place.
One study, by speech-language pathologists in the late 1990s, showed just how large these language challenges can be. They gave a battery of language comprehension and memory tests to 12 hospice patients: 11 of them couldn’t recall words, had difficulty understanding things and pronouncing words, and had difficulty remembering what was said to them. These symptoms get in the way of normal activities, like having conversations.
Even something as crucial as how well older patients can hear gets overlooked. In a 2016 survey of 510 hospice and palliative care providers across the US, 87% of them said they did not screen for hearing loss, even though 91% of them agreed that patients’ hearing loss impedes conversation and negatively affects the quality of the care they receive. Only 61% said they felt confident nonetheless that they could deal with patients with hearing problems.
The Gramlings pay a remarkable amount of attention to another factor: the pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and medications that can keep patients from communicating normally.
In his research, David has addressed what he calls “language in extremis”: what happens when people’s ideas about language and communication buckle under the strain of circumstances, as in multilingual experiences in Nazi concentration camps, or interpreting in border patrol detention facilities.
End-of-life medical conversations also often involve language in extremis. As cancer brings a person’s life near to its end, they may have lost some of their lifelong communicative powers to the disease or its treatments. They may have less ability to speak subtly and indirectly, which is important for politeness. Shallow breathing shortens utterances, and drugs may block word-finding. All of this reinforces an asymmetry in communication that doctors don’t always grasp.
A physician might encourage a patient to speak openly, and indicate their willingness to listen, but in practical terms, “That gesture doesn’t quite work,” David says, and doctors need to understand why.
At the same time, people still hew to lifelong social conventions about being a user of their language. They might be dying, but “They don’t back away from their interactional responsibilities,” David says. They honour turn-taking; they don’t interrupt. They tell jokes, they use family language, and they create mini-rituals of inclusion and exclusion, often to deal with the communication asymmetries.
“If I were picturing the developmental arc,” says David, “it wouldn’t be coasting down into death. It would be all the way and sometimes heightened. The kind of complex literacy you need to use in a hospital setting in a serious illness, and managing all your oncological terms – it’s almost like the competencies themselves get expanded in this end of life.”
In his lab, Bob is examining even more fleeting aspects of conversations, such as pauses. It’s an interesting choice, because pauses might be considered as a sign that a speaker has lost their way or that an interaction is breaking down. On the other hand, pauses are easy to locate in the acoustic signals of recorded conversations. And they might indicate where someone is listening or about to say something important, so they might be a good thing.
Bob’s team used machine learning to identify pauses of 2 seconds or longer in spoken conversations, then human coders like Brigitte Durieux tried to categorise them, looking for ones that were more than just silence.
Because they didn’t have access to what the doctors or patients were actually thinking, they looked for the presence of emotional words and other sounds like sighs or crying on either side of the pause. Did a question about the quality of life, treatment hopes, prognosis or dying precede the pause? If so, the pause may have been because the doctor invited the patient to consider something.
The team found that during some of these pauses, some connection, shift or transformation was occurring. These “connectional silences” were rare. Out of a set of 1,000 clips with pauses, a mere 32 were connectional in nature. They were brief, as well, most lasting less than four seconds. But there’s still power in them.
The dynamics of a conversation change dramatically after such a connectional silence. Suddenly, a patient will be talking more than they did earlier. They’ll be directing the conversation, not the doctor. It’s as if the mutual agreement to pause for two seconds spilled into an agreement to shift roles.
“No, for some reason I guess I just in my head was gonna be on [chemotherapy] for the rest of my life and everything was gonna be hunky dory and…” a patient begins.
A 2.9-second connectional silence follows. The doctor inhales audibly, to signal they will respond, which makes the patient pick back up.
“You know. I knew early on, I mean you told me early on it’s not like and then this will be the rest of my life. Something, you know, might go down.”
The doctor responds. “Something. That can be a very hard thing to think about. That here we found something that’s helping but you can’t stay on it for the rest of your life.”
In other moments, the silence comes after a doctor has said something empathetic.
“It’s rare of me to tell somebody point-blank you’ve got to stop. However, I will say you have my permission to set limits,” the doctor says.
“Okay,” says the patient, then falls silent for nearly seven seconds.
His wife chuckles. “He can’t stand the thought of it. I can tell by his laugh,” then she laughs.
“I know he can’t stand the thought of it,” the doctor says.
“No, that’s okay,” the patient says. “I’ll get used to it.”
Or in another instance, the doctor tells a patient’s spouse, “what you feel is really hard. It’s really hard.” There’s a 2.8-second silence.
“I just wish he had a better quality of life.”
“I know, I know,” says the doctor.
Even though these connectional silences don’t happen often, Bob thinks they’re good linguistic markers of connection exactly because doctors don’t commonly use them. When someone good at monologuing and interrupting falls silent, it may mean they’re allowing something else to happen.
Bob surmises, “More often than not, the conversations that have a lot of space in them are probably going to lead to people feeling more heard and understood.”
Judy had a question. Having come to the hospital at the University of Vermont to recover from the flu, this elegant, 83-year-old woman was lying in her bed. Two doctors had come to her room bearing news. It was cancer, not the flu, and it had spread from her liver. She could undertake a course of chemo, or she could have her pain managed as she died.
She turned to her daughter, Kate, sitting beside her. “What should I do?” she asked.
When the doctors had requested this meeting, Kate had dropped everything to be there. It seemed unusually serious. Now she knew why. She wondered why she hadn’t seen the signs of her mother’s cancer. Judy’s skin had started to look yellow, she recalled. But instead of recommending a check-up, she bought her mother some pinker make-up.
In this pivotal conversation, the doctors presented the options but also wanted to know what was important to Judy. They knitted the science together with thoughtfulness and compassion. Kate was struck by their slow, almost languid approach to delivering the news.
Slowly it dawned on her that this was a conversation about her mother’s death. Neither of them had prepared for this. Not now, not so soon.
“It had the nature of a conversation with a clergyperson rather than a doctor,” she remembers. Pastoral kept coming to mind.
At the end of the conversation, one of the doctors gave her his card. It was Bob Gramling. Kate has since seen the bright blue spectrographs showing gaps in conversation – where the pauses occur. She thinks these are important moments as well.
“Where there’s silence, where there are gaps, that’s where the caring shows up,” she says. “I think it’s incredible work to point out to doctors there’s a lot going on in the silences.”
Bob and David have only scratched the surface of how these conversations work. So far they have only studied English speakers, for example; pauses work differently in other cultures, so they need data on those moments, too. And because their data comes from people with cancer, there’s a concern that the analysis may be skewed.
With cancer, says Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou of the National Cancer Institute, most patients have time: “They continue to be themselves and continue to be part of the conversation and any ongoing discussion.” With other diseases, though, there could be more risk that the person would “lose cognitive function or physical function”. In those cases, she says, conversations “would look very different”.
Healthcare’s use of natural language processing – technologies that treat language as data – is expanding, and the chances are good that research like that of the Gramlings will expand to cover conversations with people who have other serious illnesses.
Bob isn’t the only researcher exploring the use of artificial intelligence in palliative care. In 2017, James Tulsky, a palliative care physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and a Harvard professor who studies health communication, stressed that “mass-scale, high-quality automated coding will be required” to give feedback that helps clinicians improve their expressions of empathy.
Tulsky turned to Panayiotis Georgiou, a computer engineer at the University of Southern California, to develop automated detection of emotional connections between doctors and patients. In 2017, a team headed by Georgiou showed that certain acoustic features of the speech of couples in counselling could be used to predict marital outcomes. What if algorithms could do the same for palliative care conversations?
“The technology in theory exists out there to do all this,” Tulsky says. “It’s just a matter of doing enough research, running enough iterative trials, training up the machines to actually get these algorithms trained well enough so you could apply them to more random talk.”
I ask Judy’s daughter Kate what she thinks of using artificial intelligence to enrich human connections. “I wouldn’t worry about the technology,” she says. “The more technology, the more sacred the conversation becomes.”
What does she mean? Anything that enables humans to use their voices more effectively with each other is a good thing, she explains: “It’s because of the increasing technology that the interaction becomes more wonderful.”
What is a conversation? It’s a setting where humans interact, often for a purpose but sometimes for none at all. People have to learn how to have conversations but when they become expert in their culture’s conventions, conversing becomes so automatic it feels natural.
Modern healthcare has hijacked conversation and made it a tool by which physicians can achieve their ends.
According to David, “The contemporary hospital still understands ‘conversation’ as ‘making a pre-determined X happen through conversation’.” This is a barrier in serious illness and end-of-life care, where the conversations need to be venues for figuring out what the X might be.
At the end of a patient’s life, there may not be effective medical treatments, just things to discuss and plans to make. This may need a more natural conversation than a medical one, a conversation in which none of the participants may know what the outcome will be.
After all, these conversations aren’t just for doctors; they’re for patients, too. And family members, nursing aides, housekeeping staff. “There are a lot of human beings who have a vested interest in this other human,” Bob says.
There are critics who don’t think artificial intelligence and machine learning have a role to play in palliative care. Bob’s view is that shying away from analysing this kind of conversation in this way means that essential opportunities for improving it will be missed.
“It is helpful, as a discipline that has historically thought of communication as just the art of medicine, to actually think that, no, this is a science,” he says. And understanding that science could help us re-engineer the healthcare system to support more meaningful conversations.
He’s aware of the delicacy in institutionalising and commodifying a human interaction, though. “As a physician,” he says, “I was afraid of being a researcher that was going to oversimplify this kind of sacred experience into something that’s measurable and convenient and essentially meaningless.”
That’s where Brigitte Durieux struggled with her feelings as she listened to thousands of audio clips of pauses. In some conversations, people were laughing, but she was struck by the loneliness in others. She had begun to recognise patients’ voices and wondered what had happened to them.
“Nobody is perfect, but there are times when one realises there’s something that could be said to make this feel less like a loss,” she says. Sometimes she whispered under her breath something the doctors could have offered instead.
After Bob found Brigitte crying, he wrote an ethics proposal to the hospital so that he could introduce a new procedure into his lab. He borrowed an idea from the hospital’s palliative care unit, where staff gather every week to say the names of people who have died, then ring a singing bowl.
Now, at the start of every Vermont Conversation Lab meeting, a researcher reads the name of one of the patients from the database and rings the bowl. So far, they have gone through the list of names twice.
The ceremony helps, says Brigitte, because it reduces the guilt of turning a sensitive moment in someone’s life into a piece of data.
“What it does ultimately,” she says, “is recognise the humanity of things.”
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One man’s journey to assisted death
As Michael Micallef’s body began to fail, a thought persisted in his mind — he didn’t want to die slowly, the way his father had.
For nearly three decades, the Toronto man had been living with Huntington’s disease. The hereditary, neurodegenerative illness had taken Micallef’s father about a decade before, and now, it was taking him.
As it progressed, his motor skills, speech, ability to read, and even Micallef’s ability to sleep were all faltering.
“He said he really [regretted] he didn’t have the courage to kill himself,” he said of his father.
That’s one of the reasons why on July 7, at the age of 69, the Toronto man and his wife, Vickie, held a party to celebrate his life before Micallef’s medically assisted death later that evening.
Surrounded by his closest friends and his wife of 48 years, Micallef got to say goodbye on his own terms during a party at his condo building.
Alongside dozens of guests, he enjoyed some of his favourite food — cinnamon buns, mangoes, and Whole Foods rotisserie chicken.
“This can be good for everybody. Not the result, but the process,” Micallef said. “Being able to have choices is extremely important to me. Not to others, but it is to me.”
According to the Office of the Chief Coroner, there were 1,593 medically assisted deaths in Ontario between June 30, 2018, and June 30, 2019.
Since the procedure was legalized in 2016, there have been more than 3,300 medically assisted deaths in the province, statistics show. The coroner’s office says that in Ontario, roughly 1.5 per cent of all deaths are now medically assisted.
It’s something Micallef considered ever since his diagnosis, nearly 30 years ago — but it wasn’t truly a possibility until the procedure became legal.
For Micallef and his wife, his decision to die wasn’t a cause for sorrow. His party was a celebration — of life, love, and memories made. There was a steady parade of hugs from well-wishers, along with hopes for an easy passage.
His brother, sister and cousins came. Friends surrounded Micallef to wish him well.
“I said to him, ‘Do you realize how lovely this is? Michael we are going to have a farewell party … when you go to wherever the next stage is, you’re going to know how people feel about you,'” Vickie said.
“This is a blessing.”
‘Little explosions’ in his brain
Micallef attended St. Michael’s College School through his teen years, where a voracious love of reading took hold, alongside a passion for competitive hockey.
Later in life, his job with furniture company Herman Miller had taken both him and his wife to England, Singapore and Michigan, before landing back in Toronto.
The pair did not have children. They had a large group of friends, extended family and associates all over the world.
In Micallef’s last days, he could barely read, or even sleep. He struggled to speak. His quality of life was plummeting.
“He told me, ‘My brain is starting to have little explosions in it and my muscles are starting to have little explosions,’ which means he’s going to the next stage,” Vickie said.
Huntington’s disease is an illness that causes certain parts of the brain to die, and results in physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms.
Patients lose weight, have diminished co-ordination, and difficulty walking, talking and swallowing. They can also face symptoms like depression, irritability, and obsessive behaviour.
According to the Huntington Society of Canada, people in advanced stages of the disease can no longer manage the activities of daily living, and need professional care.
Micallef wanted none of that.
“I think I said goodbye 10 years ago to Michael because the personality changed, so the man I married hasn’t been with me for a long time,” Vickie said.
Last month, in a friend’s backyard in the city’s Leaside neighbourhood, a nurse injected Micallef with a sedative. Then a doctor administered a substance to end his life.
He died while reclining on a lawn chair, with his wife next to him.
“We had a lovely little chat before he left,” Vickie said.
“I know he’s in a better place. I know his fight — I know his pain — is over with.
“I tell people Michael’s soul is now soaring through the universe, happy to be out of the broken body.”
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Is There a Different Way?
When Patricia Cassidy was at her lowest point, she had just been evicted, was overwhelmed with mounting medical bills, and was suffering from a traumatic brain injury that left her emotionally unable to cope with everyday tasks. Then her despair turned to fear as she found herself before a local judge, who mandated that she would have to cede control over her financial and medical affairs to a guardian — an organization that the court would task with managing many components of her life on her behalf.
“I went to the hearing, and it was very, very scary for me,” she recalled in a recent interview. At the time, her therapist and rheumatologist had petitioned the court to place her in a special public guardianship program for people without other means of support from family or friends. But Cassidy, a 59-year-old domestic abuse survivor facing several chronic ailments, feared losing her independence. “I was afraid of guardians,” she said. “I felt that they were going to come in and take over my life and take over everything I had and get rid of it all.”
Five years later, Cassidy said that what she most feared about guardianship — losing control — hasn’t happened. Instead, she’s stayed independent, living in a Brooklyn apartment her case worker helped secure. She now sees her guardianship, administered by the nonprofit advocacy group Vera Institute of Justice, as “just a part of my life.” But her program is part of a small, unconventional support network for extremely vulnerable seniors that aims to safeguard their lives without taking them over. For hundreds of thousands of other seniors, guardianship is an ethical gray zone, operating at the heart of a question that increasingly haunts an aging nation: When am I no longer able to care for myself?
Guardianship is one of the most ethically fraught aspects of the elder care system, hinging on the most sensitive questions about personal liberty, medical responsibility and kinship. And it all starts, for better or worse, with a judge’s decree. A court appoints a guardian when a senior is deemed unable to live independently, usually after a hearing process that reviews an individual’s medical needs or physical, intellectual, mental or psychological disabilities, and determines that guardianship is appropriate. Similar to adoption, the guardian is in most cases a relative or friend who petitions for them. But people with fewer resources might end up in the care of a public or private agency, which is tasked with managing issues like medical treatment, financial planning and end-of-life care.
Overall, about 1.5 million people nationwide are in some form of guardianship, more than three-quarters of them involving a relative. Seniors without friends or relatives who are willing to help manage their affairs may enter the care of a private guardian (who is generally arranged by family or friends and compensated directly), if they have the financial resources to do so. Elderly people who don’t have enough funds to finance their own guardians can enter a separate system known as public or community guardianship, provided by a nonprofit or government agency. But as a whole, court-appointed guardianships lack central regulation or monitoring. Advocates fear that as the Baby Boom generation ages and guardianship becomes more widespread, so will the potential for abuse or neglect.
The Vera Institute’s The Guardianship Project (TGP) is trying to get courts and communities to reimagine guardianship, both through research and advocacy and through running its own guardianship model, which now serves about 180 people across New York, including Cassidy. On a national level, TGP’s research on guardianship programs in several states suggests the system is letting many seniors fall through the cracks: Surveys of judges and other court personnel, along with professional guardians, indicate that many courts are overstretched; there is little monitoring of cases, and judges often lack expertise for handling complex cases of seniors with serious health and economic issues. Meanwhile, court-appointed guardians are in many cases attorneys, who might have no expertise in caregiving, and respondents reported a lack of guardians available with skills like social work and nursing.
“Basically, what the whole story is showing is that there’s a population of elderly, disabled and/or poor people that are largely invisible and largely ignored,” said TGP Director Kimberly George.
Meanwhile, public wariness of guardianship is growing: Media reports and government audits have revealed many cases plagued by dysfunctional bureaucracy and a pattern of elder abuse. In professional private guardianships, which often take in seniors who have some assets to pay for services, scandals have erupted in cases of neglect, exploitation or abuse of elderly people. But the poorest seniors are even more vulnerable, since their fate relies completely on the courts and public welfare systems. Poor, socially isolated seniors with complex care needs often find themselves assigned to a public or community guardian that is financed by public funds, but without adequate resources for care and legal services. According to Peter Strauss, an elder law attorney and professor at New York Law School, when funding is arbitrary and inconsistent, guardians, public or private are frustrated by “underfunding, short staff, and then they get overwhelmed with the number of cases that they can’t handle.”
“There’s a gaping hole in the system for folks who don’t have money, but who need help and don’t have anybody [who] can step in to pay their bills, make health care decisions and the like,” said Bernard Krooks, an elder law attorney who handles guardianship cases in New York. Although public guardianship programs could play a critical role for the most marginalized seniors, Krooks told Truthout, “The reality is, there has not been a funding mechanism in New York State to make this happen.”
Keeping Elders at Home
TGP’s model seeks to serve as a different kind of last resort, aiming to provide intensive services for seniors in economic hardship, with no family or friends available to serve as guardians. Funded by New York’s Office of Court Administration and other public and philanthropic funds, TGP serves clients across a range of settings, including residential care facilities, but aims to keep clients in their communities. Each client with a “wraparound team” that includes lawyers and other support staff, with specialists in managing public benefits, finances and housing. About half of the clients live at or below the federal poverty line, and half are people of color. About 60 percent of clients are living in their communities, while others live in residential institutions like nursing homes.
TGP’s multidisciplinary program intends to knit together different strands of the social infrastructure to help people avoid nursing homes and jails. If a client with mental health problems suffers a breakdown and gets arrested, TGP can provide legal representation to secure their release from jail and help connect them to a long-term treatment program that fits their needs. TGP can also support undocumented seniors by helping them obtain medical care and other services while avoiding immigration authorities and federal law that curtails non-citizens’ access to aid.
Until recently, Cassidy hardly fit the stereotype of an “incapacitated” elder. Earlier in her life, she had worked in public relation and museum curation, but over the years, her health deteriorated due to various chronic ailments and domestic abuse. Then in her mid-fifties, she was living on her own — just not very well. Her brain injury often triggered emotional outbursts; basic tasks like a visit to the bank could spiral into an angry breakdown. “I was very overwhelmed, and then therefore not able to even operate on the simplest level,” she said. Cassidy’s vulnerability was aggravated by estrangement from family members. “It was like I became an orphan at 50,” she said.
Her therapist and rheumatologist encouraged her to enter into the guardianship as a way of getting her life under control. A TGP case worker and other staff have helped her sort out her finances and secure a new apartment with a special housing subsidy based on her medical condition. While Cassidy is capable of making her own treatment decisions, her guardian also acts as an interlocutor. A conversation with a doctor can leave her “mentally fatigued,” she adds, but TGP staff “are there with me, and they’re talking to the doctor … then afterwards if they need to, [they] explain it to me five times — the doctor is not going to explain anything to you five times — [so that] I’m sure that it’s a good decision that’s being made.”
TGP works with individuals in residential institutions, but also helps them move back into their communities whenever possible. As the report explains, many clients become “stuck” in the medical system, “languishing needlessly in a hospital or nursing home,” unable to be discharged “because no one will take on the challenges of transitioning him or her back to their homes or to a less-restrictive setting with proper oversight.” Many guardians, George said, particularly those ill-prepared to deal with complex, high-needs clients, might be tempted to place a senior in a nursing home as an “easier” solution — eliminating the need for the guardian to worry about housing, food or managing the client’s bills.
When TGP steps in, the team prepares for a client’s return home by taking care of tasks like settling rent arrears with the landlord, or planning end-of-life care — services that the client would never be able to arrange while bedridden in a crowded rehab center. If a client’s condition deteriorates to the point that some form of institutionalization, such as placement in a nursing home, appears necessary, TGP would work to place them in the least restrictive setting, according to the study, perhaps seeking out a local facility “with staff who speak a client’s primary language and access to religious services and culturally familiar foods.”
Despite its personalized approach, a recent cost-analysis found that TGP’s budget saved its roughly 160 to 180 clients collectively about $3 million in annual Medicaid costs, primarily by avoiding placements in nursing homes.
The Vera Institute’s study suggests other counties and states can use a similar holistic approach to public guardianship. On the policy level, TGP’s study calls for an expansion of public guardianship nationwide — with additional funding, comprehensive monitoring of guardians and service providers, and enhanced regulatory standards, including a commitment to placing people in the least restrictive setting, and a staff-client ratio of 1 to 20 to ensure adequate resources and oversight. Overall, a more human-centered public guardianship program could enable the most vulnerable seniors to live more independently and stay close to their communities.
Safeguarding Elder Rights
Still TGP, with its limited capacity, is not itself a solution for the guardianship crisis. Some disability rights advocates criticize the concept of guardianship in general, viewing it as incompatible with the principle of independent living. They prefer alternative legal arrangements like “supported decision-making,” in which social service providers provide guidance for people on medical and financial decisions while still leaving them legally in charge of their affairs.
Meanwhile, progressive elder law advocates are also gravitating toward alternatives to guardianship that support independence whenever feasible. Alison Herschel, director of Michigan Elder Justice Initiative, says that while guardianship is necessary for some individuals, “we believe there are far too many guardianships and far too many cases that should have been resolved by utilizing less restrictive alternatives.”
The Vera Institute’s study urges court administrators to implement better training so courts can screen cases so people can opt for less restrictive options like supported decision-making. Instead of appointing a guardian for a senior with severe dementia, for example, a judge could arrange for a sibling to gain power of attorney to aid with medical or legal decisions, and provide a home health aide. Even when guardianship is strictly a last resort, the court process can be a framework for meeting a senior’s needs for both care and personal dignity, and providing support without threatening self-determination.
For Cassidy, the TGP guardianship model is not just about getting the right services, but regaining a firm sense of both her abilities and limits. Her guardian hasn’t taken over her life, as she had once feared; instead, it’s a stabilizing presence.
If she ever needs her case worker, she knows who to call. “I carry their card with me all the time.”
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