06/27/17

The Symptoms of Dying

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You and I, one day we’ll die from the same thing. We’ll call it different names: cancer, diabetes, heart failure, stroke.

One organ will fail, then another. Or maybe all at once. We’ll become more similar to each other than to people who continue living with your original diagnosis or mine.

Dying has its own biology and symptoms. It’s a diagnosis in itself. While the weeks and days leading up to death can vary from person to person, the hours before death are similar across the vast majority of human afflictions.

Some symptoms, like the death rattle, air hunger and terminal agitation, appear agonizing, but aren’t usually uncomfortable for the dying person. They are well-treated with medications. With hospice availability increasing worldwide, it is rare to die in pain.

While few of us will experience all the symptoms of dying, most of us will have at least one, if not more. This is what to expect.

The Death Rattle

“The graves are full of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles” (Pablo Neruda)

We suspected the patient wouldn’t survive off the ventilator. A blood clot had crawled up one of the vessels in the back of his brain, blocking blood flow to the area that controlled alertness. He would die from not being awake enough to cough.

The beat of the death rattle began when the breathing tube was removed and continued until life was done. It was a gurgling, crackling sound, like blowing air through a straw at the bottom of a cup of water. The average time between the onset of death rattles to death itself is 16 hours. For him, it was six.

The death rattle is a symptom of swallowing dysfunction. Normally, our tongue rises to the top of the mouth and propels saliva, liquid or food backward. The epiglottis, a flap in the throat, flops forward to protect the swallowed substance from entering the airway.

In the dying process, the symphony of swallowing becomes a cacophony of weak and mistimed movements. Sometimes the tongue propels saliva backward before the epiglottis has time to cover the airway. Other times, the tongue fails to push at all and saliva trickles down the airway to the lungs in a steady stream. The death rattle is the lungs’ attempt to breathe through a layer of saliva.

Despite the sound’s alarming roughness, it’s unlikely that the death rattle is painful. The presence of a death rattle doesn’t correlate with signs of respiratory distress.

As often happens in medicine, we treat based on intuition. To lessen the volume of the death rattle, we give medications that decrease saliva production. Sometimes, we are successful in silencing the rattle. More of the time, we placate our instinctive concern for a noise that probably sounds worse than it feels. Without hurting our patients, we treat the witnesses who will go on living.

Air Hunger

“You villain touch! What are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat” (Walt Whitman)

The patient was a wiry woman in her 80s who had smoked for seven decades. Cigarettes turned her lungs from a spongelike texture to billowing plastic bags that collapsed on themselves when she exhaled. It was like trying to scrunch all the air out of a shopping bag. Air got trapped.

Air hunger — the uncomfortable feeling of breathing difficulty — is one of the most common end-of-life symptoms that doctors work to ease.

The treatment? Opiates, usually morphine.

People sometimes ask why the treatment for painful breathing is a medication that can depress breathing. You’d guess that opiates would worsen air hunger.

The answer hinges on defining why air hunger is uncomfortable in the first place.

Some researchers think the discomfort of air hunger is from the mismatch between the breathing our brain wants and our lungs’ ability to inflate and deflate. Opiates provide relief because they tune our brain’s appetite for air to what our body can provide. They take the “hunger” out of “air hunger.”

Others believe that the amount of morphine needed to relieve air hunger may have little effect on our ability to breathe. Since air hunger and pain activate similar parts of the brain, opiates may simply work by muting the brain’s pain signals.

The patient traded her cigarettes for a breathing mask when she came to the hospital. She quit smoking for the umpteenth time and made plans to go home and live independently again. A few days later, her thin frame tired. She died in hospice.

Terminal Agitation

“Do not go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas)

My grandfather screamed two days before he died. “Open that door and let me out! Right now! It’s a travesty! Open that door!”

It was the scream of a lost child. My grandfather’s eyebrows, which had been lost over the years from the outside inward so that only a centimeter of long gray hairs near the middle remained, tilted toward each other.

Until then, we were preparing for missing and absence. Not for an agitated delirium. Not for rage.

A famous poet once wrote that “dying is an art, like everything else.” For hospice doctors, the artists of death, terminal agitation is the subject’s revolt against the shaper. It’s uncommon, but it can be difficult to watch when it happens.

Instead of peacefully floating off, the dying person may cry out and try to get out of bed. Their muscles might twitch or spasm. The body can appear tormented.

There are physical causes for terminal agitation like urine retention, shortness of breath, pain and metabolic abnormalities. There are medications that quell it. Yet it’s hard to discount the role of the psyche and the spiritual.

People who witness terminal agitation often believe it is the dying person’s existential response to death’s approach. Intense agitation may be the most visceral way that the human body can react to the shattering of inertia. We squirm and cry out coming into the world, and sometimes we do the same leaving it.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/25/17

End-of-life care: when CPR is wrong

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Pursuing treatment a person has declined represents questionable ethical practice

CPR is the appropriate response when someone has a cardiac arrest, but it has no role in the patient who slips away naturally at the end of a long illness.

The modern intensive care unit offers a wide range of life support mechanisms so that even the sickest person with multi-organ failure can be kept alive. Parallel to this, the media, and television in particular, has removed any veil of secrecy that may have existed about emergency and intensive care medicine. But it may also have raised expectations to an unreasonable level, with evidence to show that the public perception of the role of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is not a realistic one.

The inappropriate use of CPR in certain end-of-life situations has been highlighted recently in medical literature. CPR is the appropriate response when someone has a cardiac arrest. However it has no role in the patient who slips away naturally at the end of a long illness. Senior clinicians have expressed concern that doctors who are called at the time of death feel they have no authority to withhold CPR, or they fear the legal risks of doing so – even where CPR is clearly pointless. As a result, patients with terminal cancer or end stage dementia are being vigorously resuscitated rather than allowed to die naturally.

However, this newspaper has uncovered another questionable aspect of end-of-life care. Responding to recent column, readers have described how patients who had clearly and formally indicated they did not wish to be resuscitated were in fact given CPR. In most cases, the treatment failed, but relatives are being traumatised – firstly by having their concerns pushed aside and then seeing their loved one’s body bruised and broken as a result of vigorous CPR.

In some cases this is happening despite having properly drawn-up advanced care directives present in the patient’s chart. In addition, many charts have DNACPR (do not attempt CPR) stickers prominently displayed on their front covers.

Whatever about the legality of ignoring a patient’s wishes in this way, pursuing treatment the person has declined represents questionable ethical professional practice. Healthcare regulators must take steps to address this breach of trust as a matter of urgency.

Complete Article HERE!

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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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06/17/17

The things dying people care about reveal a lot about how to live

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In the end, only one thing matters.

By Corinne Purtill

Ask people to imagine what they’d say if they knew they were dying and most would have words of sadness, fear, and regret. But new psychological research bolsters what chaplains, hospice workers, and others who spend a lot of time in the company of those approaching the end of life have long known: the process of dying is a complicated one, with room for moments of profundity and light alongside fear and darkness.

In a series of experiments documented in the journal Psychological Science, researchers compared the blog posts of terminally ill people and the last words of death row inmates to the words of healthy people asked to imagine themselves writing near their death.

The people actually approaching death used more positive terms and fewer negative ones to describe their emotions than those imagining the experience. In the blog posts—all from real people who eventually died from their disease—emotions grew more positive as death approached.

It’s not a perfect study—people with unspeakable regrets or fears may be less inclined to publicly chronicle their final days than those who do not. But there are a few reasons why death may be more terrifying as a distant abstract than an immediate reality.

People tend to overlook or discount the psyche’s ability to adapt to new circumstances when imagining the future, according to research from the Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Because we don’t properly account for our own resilience when envisioning future calamities, we tend to think that we’ll feel sadder, for longer, than we actually do.

Even amid the trauma of a terminal diagnosis and the discomforts of the dying process, the mind can adapt to find pleasure in the comforts available. And when we believe we have less time to live, whether due to age, illness, or external threat, we subconsciously adjust our priorities to favor those things closest to home. Research has found that old people, young people with serious diagnoses, and people living in uncertain political climates vastly prefer time with old friends and family over new contacts and experiences. The depth of these connections bring meaning to the final days of life in a way that can be hard for healthy people in an externally-focused, future-oriented mindset to comprehend.

It’s inaccurate to portray the close of life as a universally positive or peaceful experience. “We die the way we have lived,” says Barbara Karnes, a hospice nurse who has written extensively on the dying process. “I think it is human nature to look for love, connection, and meaning. We don’t necessarily have to be dying to do that. Dying gives us the opportunity, the gift of time, to reach out, but many do not take that opportunity.”

Death focuses us on what we care about most. But we don’t have to wait until the end is imminent to live as if each day matters.

“If there is any great difference between the people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it’s this: They know they’re running out of time,” Kerry Egan, a Harvard Divinity School-trained hospital chaplain, writes in her book On Living. “They have more motivation to do the things they want to do, and to become the person they want to become…. There’s nothing stopping you from acting with the same urgency the dying feel.”

Complete Article HERE!

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06/15/17

30 Resources to Help Caregivers

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Senior caregiving is time consuming, resource intensive, and something 34.2 million people in the United States are trying to balance with everything else going on in their lives. Being the primary caregiver for an aging loved one is hard work, and a lot of caregivers are struggling with the burden without knowing where to turn for help.

Luckily, you do have options. We’ve compiled a list of 30 resources for caregivers that can help ease your burden and provide helpful information on how to handle caregiving more effectively.

Organizations that Help Caregivers

Several organizations are devoted to providing resources, aid, and advocating for seniors and caregivers.

  1. Administration on Aging

The Administration on Aging is a government organization specifically devoted to providing programs and services to help aging seniors continue living independently. While the organization is primarily focused on the well being of seniors, it includes an Office of Supporter and Caregiver Services that helps provide funding to families for resources to help with caregiving.

  1. Family Caregiver Alliance

The Family Caregiver Alliance is a nonprofit organization that provides services and education programs, as well as doing advocacy work to help encourage government policy that’s helpful to caregivers.

  1. Caregiver Action Network

The Caregiver Action Network provides educational resources for caregivers and a forum to connect family caregivers with others dealing with similar issues.

  1. Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving

The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving provides support programs and training resources for caregivers, as well as advocacy to encourage greater institutional help for caregivers.

  1. National Respite Network

Sometimes caregivers just need a break. The National Respite Network helps caregivers find respite services that temporarily take over some of the caregiving tasks so family caregivers can take a well-needed break.

6. Become A Caregiver

If you are looking to become a caregiver anywhere in the United States, look no further than caregivers.com.  They help get families and caregivers in touch quickly and easily and will ensure the family gets the best caregiver they can while matching the caregiver’s skill set to the right family.

Resources to Find Caregiving Support

A lot of caregivers find they need support in various forms, but don’t know where to start looking. These resources can help with some of the support you need.

  1. Benefits Checkup

Navigating the system of benefits available to seniors is tough, and many seniors leave potential aid or money on the table because they don’t know it’s out there for them. The Benefits Checkup site makes it easier to quickly see what benefits are available in your area that you or your loved one are likely to qualify for.

  1. Family Care Navigator

The support resources available to caregivers vary based on your geographic location. The Family Care Navigator helps you hone in on what programs and organizations are specifically available to you in your state.

  1. National Volunteer Caregiving Network

The National Volunteer Caregiving Network helps connect volunteers that want to help others in their communities with the seniors or people with disabilities that need that help. Volunteers help with things like transportation, errands, and home repairs.

  1. Lotsa Helping Hands

Lotsa Helping Hands is another website that helps connect volunteers with caregivers in their area that need some extra help. Caregivers can put the help they need on the website’s calendar and available volunteers step in to provide help with tasks like meal delivery or rides to appointments. 

  1. Eldercare Locator

The Eldercare Locator is a resource provided by the Administration on Aging to help seniors and caregivers find trusted professionals to help with the various services seniors commonly need, like home modifications and legal assistance.

  1. Well Spouse Association

Many senior caregivers are spouses taking care of their partner. The Well Spouse Association helps senior caregivers in this position tap into a larger community of other caregivers taking care of a spouse.

  1. Find Support Groups

Most communities have a number of support groups that caregivers can attend to find others struggling with similar challenges. Often, these support groups are specific to the particular issue your loved one is dealing with, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s support groups. These groups can be an invaluable resource for finding other people who understand what you’re going through and having a healthy outlet for your feelings.

Senior Care Options to Lighten the Load

Often what caregivers need most is somebody else to take on some of the work they’re trying to manage. These resources can help with that.

  1. Senior Day Care

Adult day care lets you drop off your senior loved one for the day while you work or run errands and trust that they’ll be in the care of trained staff. Senior day care also gives seniors a chance to socialize and stay busy in a new environment for the day, which many seniors start to need more as they age.

  1. In-home Care

In-home care professionals come to your home for a set number of hours to help out with the care your loved one needs. You can hire in-home care workers to provide basic around-the-house help, or home health care workers to provide health care to your loved one.

  1. Assisted Living

While many families hesitate to take the step of moving a senior loved one to assisted living, sometimes it really is the best choice for everyone. Assisted living facilities have staff available all hours of day to help with the ADLs seniors often need assistance with.

  1. Respite Care

If you don’t want to take a step that feels as permanent as assisted living, but you know you need a break, respite care can take the caregiving duties off your hands for a temporary period.

  1. Meals on Wheels

A big part of taking care of someone is making sure that they get enough meals each day to stay healthy. For overwhelmed caregivers, that’s not a small task. Meals on Wheels can help fill in with that part of your job in order to take one more thing off your plate.

  1. Independent Transportation Network

Once your loved one can no longer safely drive, getting them out to appointments and social events becomes another difficulty to manage. ITN helps seniors access affordable transportation options that provide the level of help seniors often need.

Educational Resources to Learn More About Caregiving Issues

People and organizations that can help are undeniably valuable, but sometimes getting the right knowledge at the right time is just as important.

  1. LongTermCare.gov

LongTermCare.gov is a government website full of educational resources to help people plan for long-term care and understand the options and benefits available to them.

  1. Guide to Veteran’s Long-Term Care

Veterans have even more potential benefits to tap into than most other seniors. If your loved one is a veteran or the spouse of one, this website can help you understand the benefits available to them.

  1. National Institute on Aging’s Alzheimer’s Caregiving Resources

A growing number of people provide care for Alzheimer’s patients, who require a distinct set of skills and knowledge to properly care for. The NIH provides educational materials to help caregivers learn what to do and expect.

  1. Alzheimer’s Association Caregiver Center 

The Alzheimer’s Association is one of the leading authorities on the disease. Their website provides a wealth of information on caring for Alzheimer’s patients based on up-to-date research on the subject.

  1. American Heart Association’s Resources for Caregivers

Heart disease is another common illness seniors face. The American Heart Association provides some educational tips for caregivers helping a loved one with heart disease.

  1. Cancer Caregivers Resources

The American Cancer Society likewise provides resources to loved ones of cancer patients to help provide the main information they need to take care of someone suffering from cancer.

  1. National Parkinson Foundation Caregiver’s Resources

The National Parkinson Foundation provides a number of resources to caregivers of seniors who have Parkinson’s. They also offer a helpline for caregivers that have questions.

  1. Caregiver’s Home Companion

The Caregiver’s Home Companion is a website that includes forums to connect caregivers to one another, and resources that cover many different aspects of caregiving, from the spiritual to the practical.

  1.  Next Step in Care

Next Step in Care provides guides for caregivers that help them figure out how to work with health care providers to figure out the next step for their loved one when facing complicated decisions and transition periods.

  1. AARP’s Caregiver Resources

In addition to the many resources they provide for seniors, AARP also provides planning guides and other educational resources for the caregivers that help care for seniors.

  1. Video Caregiving

For those that prefer to learn by video rather than reading, Video Caregiving provides a number of films to help caregivers learn the skills they need.

  1. mmLearn

mmLearn provides both videos and blog posts that cover an array of topics helpful to senior caregivers.

Senior caregiving is often difficult on a number of different levels, but any little bit of help you can get will make your caregiving work more sustainable and effective. Figure out which resources to help caregivers best fit your needs and take advantage of them. You’ll be a better caregiver if you’re less overwhelmed and getting the help you need.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/12/17

Dying at home: What I learned from my husband’s death

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Dr. Donald Low, centre, confers in the lab at the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care about the results of the Legionella outbreak at Seven Oaks Home for the Aged in 2005.

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The night my husband died, I slept beside his corpse in our bed. All night. This wasn’t exactly by choice: the funeral home did not retrieve bodies after 8 p.m., and there was no other bed available for me to sleep in, as all our children were home to help care for their father.

I tell this story whenever I discuss the realities of dying at home. Even as a physician assistant, I did not appreciate the challenges — or the immense rewards — of caring for my husband at home until his death.

According to a 2014 Harris/Decima survey, of those Canadians who express a preference for where they want to die, 75 per cent say they want to die at home, surrounded by loved ones. Interestingly, another Canadian study found that those loved ones aren’t quite as keen on the experience: half of the patients who said they wanted to die at home had family members who hoped the death would take place in an institution, like a palliative care unit. No matter: The majority (about 65 per cent) die in a hospital, which isn’t anybody’s first choice.

The palliative care and hospice community often use this data to advocate for more government funding of community supports, such as personal support workers, to help people die at home. And they’re right that home care and palliative care access is too uneven across Canada and in urgent need of more funding.

But what we don’t understand is how many of these hospitalizations at the end of life could be diverted with more nursing, more personal support workers, more respite for family caregivers. I believe that without better education around what’s involved in dying at home, extra resources won’t be enough.

Dying is messy. It shouldn’t have to be painful anymore, though in some cases, only deep sedation can relieve the worst pain. But pain aside, there is no getting around the progressive weakness, the loss of appetite, the fluctuating level of consciousness, the need for diapers or a catheter, and eventually, the shallow, laboured breathing. None of this has to be distressing for the patient, who can, if needed, be heavily drugged or even sedated. But it can be extremely distressing for family members to witness, and it can go on for days and, in some cases, weeks.

When I worked as a physician assistant in the emergency department, I saw many patients brought in by ambulance in those last stages of their disease. When I spoke to the family members, it was often clear they were overwhelmed by very predictable symptoms. But no one had laid it all out for them before. They weren’t looking for miracles — they accepted that death was inevitable — but they felt unprepared and untrained for the burden of watching their loved one struggle to breathe, to communicate, to just let go. Sometimes a spouse confessed that as the husband or wife’s death neared, they worried they’d always associate the home with the death. And so, they dialed 911.

How can we better support those family caregivers so that they don’t end up in the emergency department? Prepare them. Acknowledge the messiness of death. And obviously, provide palliative care resources.

In our house, I had a frank discussion with all the kids and even our cleaning lady: no matter how bad Don looked, no one was ever to call 911. I knew that if he was taken to hospital, he’d never come home again, and he’d die there. Our palliative care team had a binder that stayed on the kitchen counter, with Don’s Do Not Resuscitate order at the front. We had a nurse we could call if his symptoms weren’t being managed well. Don had opted for terminal sedation at the end: an induced coma, without food or fluids. The palliative care physician visited every few days to make sure the drugs were working, and to give us his best guess as to how much longer Don could go on like that.

I often see frail, elderly spouses who try to provide this care for their dying loved ones at home, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why they struggled. There’s no question that we were luckier than most families: I was relatively young, and we had the resources for me to stay at home and care for Don from the night they diagnosed his brain tumour until his death seven months later. Our children were incredibly strong and present, and we took turns doing even the most personal and intimate tasks for him.

Don had desperately wanted an assisted death, an option unavailable to him at the time. But if he had to die “naturally,” he told us, he’d prefer not to have strangers assisting him. In the end — only after Don was sedated, and with no small amount of guilt, we accepted help from those “strangers” to bathe him and turn him so he wouldn’t get bed sores.

There was so little comfort we could take in the fact of Don’s too-early terminal illness. But knowing that we helped him fulfil at least one of his wishes for his death — that he die at home — was comforting to us. And I thoroughly recommend it to other families if they can manage.

After Don died in my arms, all the kids came up to our bedroom and we surrounded him, breaking out his favourite scotch and sharing stories and memories. The palliative care doctor on call came to pronounce him dead and then I called the funeral home. And learned he’d be spending one more night beside me.

I’ll admit, it was weird. But as I pulled up the covers, I found they were mostly over on his side of the bed, and I smiled and looked over at his sweet face one last time. “Really Don? Hogging the covers, even in death?” And I slept soundly all night.

Complete Article HERE!

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