Behind Closed Doors

— ‘the Difficulty and the Beauty’ of Pandemic Hospice Work

Javier Urrutia, a home hospice music therapist, celebrating Josniel Castillo’s 11th birthday in Queens.

“I did not really understand when people would ask, ‘Why me and why my family?’” a hospice chaplain said. “Now I was asking the same questions.”

By James Estrin

This year was different.

The coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed Ms. Saoui’s work as a home hospice nurse in New York. Safety precautions created a physical distance between her and her patients and even cut some of her hospice colleagues off from their clients’ homes altogether last year. It deprived families and caretakers of ways to grieve together, and confronted hospice workers, however familiar with death, with a staggering scale of loss.

Through all the pressures, Ms. Saoui and other workers continued to provide solace and even moments of happiness to dying patients and their families.

“You sit down and you listen,” she said. “They express their fear, they express their emotions, and you guide them and tell them what to expect.” After a patient dies, she added, “I often want to hug the family members, but I cannot do that now.”

Instead, Ms. Saoui said, “I pray and do the best I can.”

More than half a million Americans have died from the coronavirus, and many have died in pain, isolated from their families. Ms. Saoui contrasted those conditions with what she called a good death: “peaceful, pain-free, at home and surrounded by their loved ones.”

While nurses have continued in-person home visits, some chaplain, social work and therapy sessions moved online because families preferred it. By August, most of that care switched back to in-person visits but with strict precautions, including wearing full P.P.E. at times and keeping six feet apart whenever possible.

Ms. Saoui examining Pedro Torres, while his wife, Gloria, and his son, Darron, look on.
Ms. Saoui examining Pedro Torres, while his wife, Gloria, and his son, Darron, look on.

Though a vast majority of Ms. Saoui’s patients in the last year did not have the coronavirus when they entered hospice, challenging restrictions have been placed on all patients and caregivers. Home hospice care can last for many months, and workers often develop close relationships with patients and their families.

But the pandemic has meant fewer occasions for families — and hospice workers — to mourn together in person at funerals or memorial services. For over a year, the size of those gatherings has been strictly limited by many states to try to stem the spread of the virus.

Nurse Hanane Saoui visits Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.
Nurse Hanane Saoui visits Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.Credit…

When hospice patients die, their caretakers often work through their own grief and loss in weekly staff meetings and gatherings with colleagues who shared the same client. These staff meetings are now online, but the loss of being able to hold each other and shed tears together has deeply affected hospice workers, said Melissa Baguzis, a social worker who specializes in pediatric cases. She has developed her own ways to handle the loss of her young patients.

“I take a moment, light a candle and read their favorite book or listen to their favorite song,” she said. “I have my own time for them. We do become connected with their families, but when I’m in their houses, that is their grief and I’m going to support them. I need to process my own loss outside of that.”

A nurse, Ozail Bennett, dressing in protective equipment before going to see a home hospice patient that has the coronavirus. Mr. Bennett also contracted the virus last April.
A nurse, Ozail Bennett, dressing in protective equipment before going to see a home hospice patient that has the coronavirus. Mr. Bennett also contracted the virus last April.

The hospice workers in the MJHS Health System, a nonprofit that covers New York and Nassau County, are comfortable around death in a way that many Americans are not. But the pandemic has put an extra weight on them and their patients, Ms. Baguzis said. “We all share in each other’s grief now more than ever,” she said.

The Rev. Christopher Sigamoney, an Episcopal priest who is a hospice chaplain, said he has tried to be there for his patients “even with their frustration, anger, hopelessness, depression and anxiety.”

Father Christopher Sigamoney talks with Joseph Lai.
Father Christopher Sigamoney talks with Joseph Lai.

He often told patients’ family members that it was “OK to be angry at God” over the loss of their loved one. But he said that the death of a beloved cousin from the coronavirus had changed his understanding of his work.

Father Sigamoney and his family were unable to be with his cousin, a retired doctor visiting from India, during the three days while she was on a ventilator in the hospital at the end of her life. He and a handful of relatives said “a few prayers” in the funeral home, he said, but they were unable to have a “proper burial” or ship the body home to India because of virus restrictions.

Father Christopher Sigamoney prays with patient Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.
Father Christopher Sigamoney prays with patient Diane Wilcox at her home in Queens.

“I did not really understand when people would ask, ‘Why me and why my family?’” he said of the time before his cousin’s death. “Now I was asking the same questions. I said to God, ‘Now I’m angry at you, and I hope you can forgive me.’” Father Sigamoney said he was slowly recovering through prayer and helping his patients.

Last month, Josniel Castillo was hooked up to a battery of medical machines and monitors, surrounded by his parents and a multitude of stuffed animals, as Javier Urrutia, a music therapist, and Ms. Baguzis entered his cramped bedroom. Despite his declining medical condition because of a rare genetic disease, this was a happy day. It was Josniel’s 11th birthday.

Mr. Urrutia launched into “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song. Josniel’s mother and father, Yasiri Caraballo and Portirio Castillo, joined in. Ms. Caraballo wiped away tears. They were, she said, “tears of joy” because she had not expected her son would live to be 11.

She requested another tune, and played tambourine as Mr. Urrutia launched into “Que Bonita Es Esta Vida.” They sang the final chorus together, part of which can translate to:

Oh, this life is so beautiful

Though it hurts so much sometimes

And in spite of its sorrows

There’s always someone who loves us, someone who takes care of us.

Afterward, Mr. Urrutia said most people are “unaware of what’s happening behind closed doors, both the difficulty and the beauty.”

Melissa Baguzis, a MJHS hospice social worker, visiting Josniel Castillo on his 11th birthday.
Melissa Baguzis, a MJHS hospice social worker, visiting Josniel Castillo on his 11th birthday.

This year in countless homes, there has been “a lot of pain and suffering, it cannot be denied,” he said. But in hospice work, he said, “you also see all of the heroes out there doing the simple things of life, caring for each other. The husband taking care of his wife or the mother taking care of her son.”

“Dying is a part of life,” he added. “Only living things die.”

Complete Article HERE!

6 Ways to Reduce Stress at the End of Your Life

It’s not easy nearing the end of your life, but that doesn’t mean you need to be stressed.

By

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.

Make Amends

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.

Complete Article HERE!

Music therapy ministers to patient needs in ‘winter of life’

In this Feb. 4, 2019 photo, Donald Granstaff, 92, sings Louis Armstrong’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” at his Princeton, Ky., home with board certified music therapist Kenna Hudgins, a contractor with Pennyroyal Hospice. Hudgins designs Donald’s weekly music therapy sessions to help decrease any feelings of isolation.

By MICHELE VOWELL

“At 92 years old, I finally learned to do as I’m told,

The sun comes up, the sun goes down,

The earth keeps goin’ ’round and ’round.

I’m content where I am.

In the winter of life, I do the best that I can.”

Princeton resident Donald Granstaff spends much of his time these days looking back on his life.

The 92-year-old husband, father, Navy veteran, musician, preacher and missionary served his country and God for decades around the globe. Today, Donald often reflects on those times from his bedroom while under the care of Pennyroyal Hospice.

“I was thinking the last few days, what have I accomplished?” he said Monday afternoon. “Around the world twice. Haiti and the West Indies — all that. And all I can come up with is the guys that I prayed with and I lead them to the Lord. And, I suppose that’s what it’s all about.”

To help Donald face the winter of his life, Kenna Hudgins, board certified music therapist, brings her keyboard, drums, guitar and even a tambourine, weekly to share an hour of tunes with the elderly patient at his home. Hudgins and Donald sing familiar songs and play the instruments together in an effort to make his transition easier.

“The main goal I initially assessed (for Donald) was for anticipatory grief — to work through the acceptance of the fact that we are terminal and now on hospice (care),” she said. “He’s very aware, so day after day just knowing that it’s coming and there will be changes and decline. Life is hard. Music therapy offers a way to process that musically.”

Music therapy

“Anyone who responds to music can benefit from music therapy, especially in hospice,” Hudgins said. “Music plays a role in all of our lives. It always has. It’s why we can watch a movie and feel scared, feel love or feel emotion. Music causes neurologic response — it affects our whole brain — in multiple areas simultaneously. Because of that, music therapy is not about being a musician. It’s not about understanding music. It’s about just responding.”

Hudgins, who is a contractor with Pennyroyal Hospice, uses her skills as a board certified music therapist to address the needs of patients in Christian, Todd, Trigg, Lyon and Caldwell counties in western Kentucky.

“Hospice is very grounding,” Hudgins said. “Every day that you go into somebody’s house and they’re dealing with their struggles, it brings you back to true purposes — day-to-day tasks and stresses don’t matter as much because life is short. Personally, it’s just a very rewarding field.”

Communicating with hospice social workers, Hudgins identifies patients who may benefit from music therapy. She asks family members for 10 minutes of their time to visit their loved one and share a song or two with them to assess his or her responses.

“I don’t usually talk much about it, I just let them experience it,” she said, smiling. “I’ve never been told not to come back and it’s never just 10 minutes.”

Hudgins said everyone has memories associated with certain music.

“A therapist’s job is to find that music that is significant to that person,” she said.

Working with some patients can be difficult, Hudgins said, because of the emotions tied to facing the end of life, but sharing music with them is rewarding.

“Music is so joyful,” she said. “When I get to bring joy to a family and a loved one … that’s not a sad job. … I’m really blessed to just be a part of their lives. To bring joy is just huge.”

Music with Donald

After working with Donald for several weeks, Hudgins said her therapy goals for him shifted to decreasing his feelings of isolation.

“I try to get as much participation from him physically, whether that’s playing the keyboard or drumming,” she said. “As his hands might get more stiff, clapping — anything to get his body engaged. If his body is unable, then just getting him to verbally participate. That, in and of itself, will decrease isolation.”

In Monday’s music therapy session, Hudgins wanted Donald to sing some love songs with her while playing instruments.

“With Valentine’s day coming up next week, we’re going to do sweetheart songs,” she said.

“The old sweetheart songs,” Donald said. “That’s the best kind, the old ones.”

The duo harmonized to Bing Crosby’s “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” as Hudgins played the keyboard.

“Let me call you sweetheart

I’m in love with you

Let me hear you whisper

That you love me too …”

In the middle of the song, Don stopped singing to share a childhood memory.

“I used to hear my dad sing that one all the time,” Donald said.

“Yeah? Did he sing it to your mom?” Hudgins said.

“Yeah. He worked in vaudeville for a long time,” he said. “He played mandolin and violin, and he sang all the time. He loved to sing.”

“Good memories,” Hudgins said.

Donald married his own sweetheart Betty 68 years ago. They exchanged vows on June 16, 1950.

“It was my birthday,” he said.

In the living room, Betty sat on the couch quietly listening to her husband sing and play music with Hudgins. She said music therapy is a comfort to her and Donald, who played several instruments, including the organ, keyboard and drums since he was a boy.

“I love that he’s even trying,” she said after the session. “I think this is a good thing for him because he was a musician. It meant so much to his heart. That was his life.”

Back in his bedroom, a second song, Frank Sinatra’s “My Funny Valentine,” also sparked Donald’s memories of his father.

“That’s a good song,” he said. “He used to sing songs like it.”

“I’m glad I’m making you think about your dad. I haven’t heard you talk a lot about him,” Hudgins said.

“He was quite a man. Yeah boy! He was something else,” Donald said, remembering times they would go fishing together at Lake Barkley. “He owned a couple of boats. Nice, big boats. And I used to go with him on the boats.”

Midway through the hour, Hudgins sang the chorus to a song about Donald’s life they wrote together after three or four music therapy sessions.

“I am a husband, a father, a preacher, a teacher

A born-again, saved-by-grace man …”

“When I came out of college, I was a really smooth character,” Donald said, listening to the lyrics. “I was fast and furious, and I didn’t stay that way very long. I was saved in June 1959, and before that I was a ‘religious’ human being …”

Early in their marriage, Donald and Betty took their five children to the mission field in the British Isles of the Caribbean and later in Haiti. Donald also helped another missionary build a radio station in Dominica. When they moved back to the U.S., he pastored a few churches in McMinnville, Tennessee, and Princeton. For a time, he often played the organ in the Barkley Lodge dining room.

“He was a musician from the time he was little,” Betty said. “Every church we were a part of he would play the organ until he wasn’t able to physically.”

Now, Betty said, some days can be difficult.

“Sometimes I have an overwhelming sadness. It’s hard to see him not be able to do anything,” Betty said, crying. “God love him, he never complains. Never, ever complains about anything. He’s just always up and very sweet. He’s still a testimony to everybody that visits him because of his attitude.”

Happy Trails

To close out Monday’s music therapy session, Donald and Hudgins sang the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans classic, “Happy Trails.”

“Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?

Just sing a song, and bring the sunny weather.

Happy trails to you,

Until we meet again.”

“I think it’s good. It can help lift you up,” Donald said of music therapy with Hudgins. “I’m not like some guys. Some guys get tired of it, throw their hands up and leave. I’ll try.”

Hudgins said Donald “still has a lot of life in him.”

“Whether (the patient) is a musician or not, music is a way to connect with the outside world. It can pull you into different areas of your own life, make you feel alive again,” she said.

Part of Donald’s legacy will be the song he and Hudgins wrote together.

“We have created a tangible song that he can leave for his family,” she said. “His family are musicians so they can actually play that song and play it with him.”

The chorus is:

“I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a preacher

A born-again, saved-by-grace man.

I’m a musician, woodworker, a servant, missionary

But most of all I’m just a good ole boy from Kentucky.”

Donald and Hudgins plan to meet next week for music therapy.

“Every one of us has had music in our lives that has impacted us,” Hudgins said. “It’s my job to figure out what is going to impact someone at the end of their life for the best end-of-life experience possible.”

Complete Article HERE!