The 11 qualities of a good death

Opening up about death can make it easier for ourselves and our loved ones.

By Jordan Rosenfeld

Nearly nine years ago, I received a call from my stepmother summoning me to my grandmother’s house. At 92 years old, my Oma had lost most of her sight and hearing, and with it the joy she took in reading and listening to music. She spent most of her time in a wheelchair because small strokes had left her prone to falling, and she was never comfortable in bed. Now she had told her caregiver that she was “ready to die,” and our family believed she meant it.

I made it to my grandmother in time to spend an entire day at her bedside, along with other members of our family. We told her she was free to go, and she quietly slipped away that night. It was, I thought, a good death. But beyond that experience, I haven’t had much insight into what it would look like to make peace with the end of one’s life.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, which gathered data from terminal patients, family members and health care providers, aims to clarify what a good death looks like. The literature review identifies 11 core themes associated with dying well, culled from 36 studies:

  • Having control over the specific dying process
  • Pain-free status
  • Engagement with religion or spirituality
  • Experiencing emotional well-being
  • Having a sense of life completion or legacy
  • Having a choice in treatment preferences
  • Experiencing dignity in the dying process
  • Having family present and saying goodbye
  • Quality of life during the dying process
  • A good relationship with health care providers
  • A miscellaneous “other” category (cultural specifics, having pets nearby, health care costs, etc.)

In laying out the factors that tend to be associated with a peaceful dying process, this research has the potential to help us better prepare for the deaths of our loved ones—and for our own.

Choosing the way we die

Americans don’t like to talk about death. But having tough conversations about end-of-life care well in advance can help dying people cope later on, according to Emily Meier, lead author of the study and a psychologist who worked in palliative care at the University of California San Diego’s Morres Cancer Center. Her research suggests that people who put their wishes in writing and talk to their loved ones about how they want to die can retain some sense of agency in the face of the inevitable, and even find meaning in the dying process.

Natasha Billawala, a writer in Los Angeles, had many conversations with her mother before she passed away from complications of the neurodegenerative disease ALS (amytropic lateral sclerosis) in December 2015. Both of her parents had put their advanced directives into writing years before their deaths, noting procedures they did and didn’t want and what kinds of decisions their children could make on their behalf. “When the end came it was immensely helpful to know what she wanted,” Billawala says.

When asked if her mother had a “good death,” according to the UCSD study’s criteria, Billawalla says, “Yes and no. It’s complicated because she didn’t want to go. Because she lost the ability to swallow, the opportunity to make the last decision was taken from her.” Her mother might have been able to make more choices about how she died if her loss of functions had not hastened her demise. And yet Billawalla calls witnessing her mother’s death “a gift,” because “there was so much love and a focus on her that was beautiful, that I can carry with me forever.”

Pain-free status

Dying can take a long time—which sometimes means that patients opt for pain medication or removing life-support systems in order to ease suffering. Billawala’s mother spent her final days on morphine to keep her comfortable. My Oma, too, had opiate pain relief for chronic pain.

Her death wasn’t exactly easy. At the end of her life, her lungs were working hard, her limbs twitching, her eyes rolling behind lids like an active dreamer. But I do think it’s safe to say that she was as comfortable as she could possibly be—far more so than if she’d been rushed to the hospital and hooked up to machines. It’s no surprise that many people, at the end, eschew interventions and simply wish to go in peace.

Emotional well-being

Author and physician Atul Gwande summarizes well-being as “the reasons one wishes to be alive” in his recent book Being Mortal. This may involve simple pleasures like going to the symphony, taking vigorous hikes or reading books He adds: “Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down … What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make?”

Kriss Kevorkian, an expert in grief, death and dying, encourages those she educates to write advance directives with the following question in mind: “What do you want your quality of life to be?”

The hospital setting alone can create anxiety or negative feelings in an ill or dying person, so Kevorkian suggests family members try to create a familiar ambience through music, favorite scents, or conversation, among other options, or consider whether it’s better to bring the dying person home instead. Billawalla says that the most important thing to her mother was to have her children with her at the end. For many dying people, having family around can provide a sense of peace.

Opening up about death and dying

People who openly talk about death when they are in good health have a greater chance of facing their own deaths with equanimity. To that end, Meier is a fan of death cafés, which have sprung up around the nation. These informal discussion groups aim to help people get more comfortable talking about dying, normalizing such discussions over tea or cake. It’s a platform where people can chat about everything from the afterlife (or lack thereof) to cremation to mourning rituals.

Doctors and nurses must also confront their own resistance to openly discussing death, according to Dilip Jeste, a coauthor of the study and geriatric psychiatrist with the University of California San Diego Stein Institute for Research on Aging. “As physicians we are taught to think about how to prolong life,” he says. That’s why death becomes [seen as] a failure on our part.” While doctors overwhelmingly believe in the importance of end-of-life conversations, a recent US poll found that nearly half (46%) of doctors and specialists feel unsure about how to broach the subject with their own patients. Perhaps, in coming to a better understanding of what a good death looks like, both doctors and laypeople will be better prepared to help people through this final, natural transition.

Complete Article HERE!

Hospice staff help dying animal lover see her dogs and horse for one last time

Jan Holman, 68, had been away from her beloved pet dogs and horse for six weeks and was missing them all until she received a special visit – facilitated by her hospice

Jan was happy to be reunited with her dogs Monty and Rowley

By Millie Reeves

A terminally ill woman has had the chance to say goodbye to her two dogs and horse thanks to hospice staff.

Jan Holman, 68, was admitted to hospital six weeks ago and is now a patient at the Hospice of the Good Shepherd in Chester.

Her quick referral to the hospice meant she hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to her dogs, Monty and Rowley, or Bob, her horse of 10 years.

Due to the pandemic Jan was unable to have any visitors at the hospital, and her husband of 46 years, Dennis, said she found having no visitors or personal contact difficult.

After four weeks, Jan was moved to the hospice to receive end-of-life care.

Knowing Jan was also missing her animals, the hospice arranged for a visit from her two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Monty and Rowley, as well as her horse, Bob.

Even though she was unable to get out of bed, Jan was excited to have the chance to see the gang one more time.

Dennis said: “It was just such a relief once Jan was moved from the hospital to the hospice in Chester and we were able to have named visitors who could come and see Jan regularly, however we never imagined that we would be able to include Monty, Rowley and Bob on the visiting list.”

Staff brought in Jan's two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Monty and Rowley
Staff brought in Jan’s two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Monty and Rowley

He continued: “All the staff here have been wonderful. Jan has been so well cared for, nothing is too much trouble even down to the chef coming every day to see what he can tempt Jan to eat.

“Nothing is too much trouble, including arranging for a horse to visit!”

Before her illness Jan, who has lived in Chester all of her life, could be seen dressed as Chester’s Tudor Lady delivering tours of the city where she has been a Blue Badge Tour Guide for 37 years.

Jan said: “I just can’t believe what the staff here at the hospice have done for me. Until a few weeks ago I was still riding Bob every day and he is such an important part of my life, and I have missed him so much.

“I knew that arranging for my dogs to visit was possible as we had a neighbour who was a patient at the hospice a few years ago and we were allowed to bring the dogs to visit her, but I just didn’t expect that they would ever be able to give me the chance to see Bob one more time.”

Horse Bob came to visit through the patio door
Horse Bob came to visit through the patio door

Louise Saville King, deputy ward manager at the hospice, said: “It was obvious when Jan first came to us that she is passionate about her animals and that horses have played a large part in her life for many years.

“The ethos of hospice care is not just about caring for the clinical needs of our patients but also looking after their emotional and spiritual needs as well.

“It’s about making a difference to our patients and their families in whatever way we can.

“We know that sometimes people are scared at the thought of coming to the hospice, but it’s a positive place where people are supported and well cared for.

“The work of the hospice really does make a difference to people’s lives.“

Complete Article HERE!

More people are dying at home, but the quality of their deaths matters most

Did they receive care and compassion from loved ones or did they die alone, fearful of getting infected in hospital?

By and

From the start of the pandemic to 24 September 2021, deaths at home in England and Wales have been 37% higher than the 2015-2019 average, according to the Office for National Statistics.

For every three people who used to die at home, four now do. That’s more than 71,000 “excess” deaths, only 8,500 of which involved Covid. Even as mortality elsewhere fell back to past levels, dying in private homes has persistently remained above average. A natural question arises: are these “extra” deaths or a shift from other locations?

Fortunately, National Records of Scotland publishes excess death calculations by location and major causes of death. Its most recent data shows the leading causes of death were cancer, heart disease and stroke. In 2021, the combined total for these causes was only about 1% above the 2015-2019 average, with around 260 extra deaths. However, deaths from these causes at home were 36% higher than recent years, with a corresponding decrease in care homes and hospitals. These additional deaths at home were not “extra”, but resulted from a major, systematic change in where people were dying.

So what’s the reason for this change and, perhaps more importantly, what was the quality of these deaths? How many were free of pain and experienced intimate care and compassion from loved ones and how many have died at home alone, fearful of getting infected in hospital? Existing statistics struggle to answer these important questions.

NHS England has sought to “personalise” end-of-life care in its long-term plan. Reported statistics from surveys and patient records about where people wish to die can exclude “missing” responses, such as when no preference is forthcoming. It is unclear if the shift towards dying at home is, on balance, a positive or negative development.

Every family has to deal with a death and live with its aftermath. In the words of Sam Royston, director of policy and research at Marie Curie: “It is critical that we ensure that those who die at home have all of the support and assistance they need for the best possible death.”

Complete Article HERE!

Death and psychedelics

— How science is reviving this ancient connection

By

In November 1963, the writer and psychedelic explorer Aldous Huxley laid in bed, unable to speak. He was dying of cancer. One of his final acts was to pass a handwritten note to his wife Laura. 

His famous last words: “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular.”

It was Huxley’s dying wish: a large dose of acid, please. Laura Huxley fulfilled the request twice during her husband’s final hours.

First synthesized 25 years before Huxley’s death, LSD was still legal in 1963. Scientists were studying it as a potential treatment for alcoholism and other ailments, as well as investigating its similarity to other psychedelics. It wasn’t until 1968 that the federal government outlawed these drugs due to their association with the cultural turbulence of the 1960s.

Today, several decades later, terminal cancer patients are once again taking psychedelics. This time around the drugs are being administered by doctors and scientists in controlled settings—and they are not microdoses. The results of this research have been nothing short of remarkable.

Laura Archera Huxley, 40-year-old musician and filmmaker, and husband Aldous Huxley, 61-year-old British novelist, pictured at their Hollywood home in Hollywood in 1956. On his deathbed seven years later, Huxley asked his wife for a massive dose of LSD.

Alleviating anxiety and despair

Terminal patients often suffer from feelings of intense anxiety and despair after receiving their diagnoses. For many, this is just too much to bear. The overall suicide risk for these patients is double or more compared to the general population, with suicide typically occurring in the first year after diagnosis.

Terminal patients have twice the suicide risk of the general public. Psychedelics may help reduce their fear and suffering.

That’s where psychedelic therapy may help. After a single large dose of psilocybin, taken in a curated space and supervised by a pair of doctors, many patients report feeling reborn. It’s not that the underlying physical disease has been cured. Rather, the drug prompts a shift in the theme of their emotional self-narrative—from anxiety and despair to acceptance and gratitude.

It may seem curious to think about psychedelic drugs, often associated with hippies and the Grateful Dead, as clinical-grade tools for overcoming our primordial aversion to death. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe this is only surprising if your window of historical perspective is too narrow. Maybe these “novel findings” are, in a sense, a return to somewhere we’ve been before.

Psychedelics at the dawn of civilization

In late 2020 I spoke to Brian Muraresku, author of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name, about the use of psychoactive plant medicine throughout antiquity. Our podcast conversation covers this history in more detail, but it’s clear that humanity’s relationship with psychoactive plants extends back at least to ancient Greece—if not further. It’s hard to look at prehistoric cave paintings like the Tassili mushroom figure and not wonder if psychedelics played a part in their creation.

Western philosophy may have developed with help from psychedelics as well. In Plato’s well-known allegory of the cave, a group of prisoners live chained to a cave wall, seeing nothing but the shadows of objects projected onto it by fire. The shadows are their reality; they know nothing outside of it. Philosophers, Plato states, are like prisoners freed from the cave. They know the shadows are mere reflections, and they aim to understand deeper levels of reality.

Plato’s philosophical ideas might have been influenced by psychedelic experiences.

Was Plato tripping?

If that sounds like someone who’s explored those deeper levels with psychedelic assistance…well, maybe it was. In his book, Brian Muraresku explores the significance of the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret ceremonies that involved death and rebirth. For centuries, philosophers and mystics traveled to the Greek town of Eleusis to partake in a ritual that involved an elixir known as pharmakon athanasias, “the drug of immortality.”

“Within the toolkit of the archaic techniques of ecstasy–plant medicine just being one among many–something you find again and again, in Ancient Greece and other traditional societies, is this sense that to ‘die’ in this lifetime, or achieve a sense of timelessness in the here and now, is the real trick.” -Brian Muraresku

Contemporary archaeologists, digging outside Eleusis, have unearthed ancient chalices containing a residue of beer and Ergotized grain. Ergot is a fungus that grows on grain. It produces alkaloids similar to LSD. It’s possible, then, that influential thinkers like Plato were inspired by genuine psychedelic experiences.

This connection between psychedelics and death didn’t end with Eleusis. It survived, often repressed and hidden from view, right through the time of Aldous Huxley.

The connection re-emerges in the 1960s

In the 1960s, Timothy Leary co-wrote a book called The Psychedelic Experience: A manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Leary, the exiled Harvard professor and psychedelic guru, dedicated the book, “with profound admiration and gratitude,” to Aldous Huxley. It opens with a passage from The Doors of Perception, Huxley’s essay on the psychedelic experience. Huxley is asked if he can fix his attention on what the Tibetan Book of the Dead calls the Clear Light. He answers yes, “but only if there were somebody there to tell me about the Clear Light.”

It couldn’t be done alone. That’s the point of the Tibetan ritual, he says: You need “somebody sitting there all the time telling you what’s what.”

Huxley was describing a trip sitter, someone who guides a person along their psychedelic journey. Sometimes it’s an ayauasquero in the heart of the Amazon. Sometimes it’s a doctor holding your hand in a hospital.

Timothy Leary, shown at home in California in 1979, was deeply influenced by Huxley’s work.

Seeking rebirth within the mind

In his book, Leary grounded Eastern spiritual concepts in the understanding of neurology we had at the time. The states of consciousness achieved by meditation masters and those induced by three hits of Orange Sunshine, he wrote, may actually be the same. Both involve dissolving the ego (“death”) and allowing it to recrystallize as the default mode of consciousness returns (“rebirth”). 

Leary wasn’t talking about magic. Scientists know these as “non-ordinary brain states,” inducible by rigorous attentional practice (meditation), pharmacological intervention (psychedelics), and organic decay (dying).

The ability of psychedelics to induce these remarkable brain states may also be why they’re showing such promise in alleviating the very ordinary fear of death.

Today’s psychedelic treatments: Coping with death

So what, exactly, has recent research on psilocybin as an end-of-life anxiety treatment involved?

A few small studies have seen psilocybin administered to dozens of cancer patients. They’ve been conducted in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled fashion. In general, a large majority of patients showed sustained, clinically significant reductions in measures of psychosocial stress and increased levels of overall well-being.

For example, in one study, 80% of the patients found that a single dose of psilocybin quickly relieved their distress. Remarkably, in some patients that positive effect lasted for more than six months.

Sprouting new physical connections

What’s going on at the neuronal level to produce those changes? We don’t know for sure, but some preclinical research has given us a hint. Both psilocybin and LSD have been shown to induce rapid and lasting antidepressant effects in lab animals.

Early studies hint at how psychedelics may produce positive changes in the brain.

Early indications are that psychedelics may allow brain circuits to rapidly sprout new physical connections. This is exciting, but again: These are non-human studies, and it’s early.

It’s gratifying to see any of these studies happening, frankly. This is research that’s been stalled by the Schedule I status of psychedelics for half a century. Much of this work requires obtaining a special federal waiver to study banned substances, which slows progress.

Potential help for end-of-life patients

Fortunately, the FDA recently designated psilocybin therapy as a “breakthrough therapy” and the DEA has proposed increasing the supply of psilocybin for research. This should speed up the rate at which we understand the clinical efficacy of psilocybin and related psychedelics.

Here’s more good news: In terms of psilocybin’s efficacy as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety, larger human trials are already underway.

Dr. Stephen Ross, one of the field’s leading researchers, has described the significance of this work: “If larger clinical trials prove successful, then we could ultimately have available a safe, effective, and inexpensive medication—dispensed under strict control—to alleviate the distress that increases suicide rates among cancer patients.”

Huxley: Ahead of his time

In one sense, Aldous Huxley was ahead of his time. More than a half-century before today’s renaissance in psychedelic research, his own experiences had evidently brought him to the conclusion that the best way to experience death was in a psychedelic trance.

In another sense, though, Huxley was one in a long line of creators stretching back to ancient Greek philosophers and perhaps even to prehistoric cave artists. They may all have used psychedelics to catalyze their outward creativity and comfort their inner distress.

Huxley titled his famous introspective essay, The Doors of Perception, after a quote from the English poet, William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to [us] as it is, infinite.”

We will never know what he experienced in the final hours before his death, after handing that note to his wife. I like to think that for him, the last breath seemed to last forever.

Complete Article HERE!

4 ways to improve the lives of older people

By Prakash Tyagi

  • By 2050, it is expected there will be more humans over 60 than under 15 for the first time in history.
  • Older people are harder hit by poverty and ill-health, necessitating better support structures be put in place.
  • The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing gives a framework for improving older people’s lives.

Population ageing and the resulting demographic transition around the world present complex challenges. It is estimated that the global population of older persons will rise by 56% between 2015 and 2030, from 956 million to 1.4 billion, and hit the 2.1 billion mark by 2050. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the 60+ age group globally is expected to rise from 12% to a staggering 22%. People over 60 will outnumber those below the age of 15 for the first time in history.

The transition is rapid and dramatic, and uneven in different parts of the world. While it took France about 150 years to rise from 10% to 20% of the population being older than 60, a similar transition will occur India, China and Brazil in about 20 years. In high-income countries, the proportions of older people have been rising gradually, with over 28% of Japan’s population already being over 65 years of age.

The proportion of older people worldwide is ageing
The proportion of older people worldwide is ageing Image: UN

Large numbers of older people, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries, live in severe poverty and in poor health, with no or limited access to basic health services and social protection benefits. There are gender disparities too, with older women experiencing greater deprivation. Research suggests that in sub-Saharan Africa households headed by older women live in greater poverty compared to households headed by men of equivalent age. Furthermore, the correlation between ageing and disability is clear, with over 46% of older people worldwide living with some form of disability. Over 250 million older people have moderate to severe disabilities. These numbers are likely to rise further, causing more hardship.

This significant demographic transition means there is unprecedented need for age-friendly and responsive healthcare systems and a range of coordinated services to address the complex needs of this ageing global population.

The proposal of observing a Decade of Healthy Ageing from 2021 to 2030 was adopted by the UN General Assembly last December. This global collaboration is led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and will bring together governments, civil society, international agencies, professionals, academia, the media, and the private sector, in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To foster healthy ageing and to improve the lives of older people, the Decade of Healthy Ageing will focus on four action areas. The first is to create and strengthen age-friendly environments by removing physical and social barriers and by converting them into better places to live and to age. The second is to combat ageism: Older people, despite their significant contributions to society, are often overlooked and subject to prejudice. Such stereotyping and discrimination must be addressed.

The third is to provide integrated care. All older people should have non-discriminatory access to integrated care, which should include but is not limited to: prevention, promotive, curative, rehabilitative, and palliative and “end of life” care – which must be safe, affordable and of good quality. The fourth is to support long-term care (LTC). With significant decline in their mental and physical capacities, many older people are unable to live an independent life or to actively participate in society. Hence, access to good LTC services is essential to maintain their functional ability, to ensure that they enjoy basic human rights and that they live a life with dignity.

Numbers of older people above 60 by world regions
Numbers of older people above 60 by world regions Image: UN

Four further enablers will be critical to the Decade of Healthy Ageing: engaging directly with the voices of older people; leadership development and capacity-building at all levels; connecting all stakeholders; and strengthening research, data and innovation.

The decade, its action areas and enablers lay out a solid framework to foster healthy ageing around the world. However, stronger efforts will have to be made into converting a theoretical framework into practical and measurable actions. To date, progress has been limited and further delayed by priorities imposed by the pandemic. On 1 October, International Day of the Older Persons (IDOP), which this year has a theme of Digital Equity for All Ages, is an important opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved.

Looking ahead, it may be worthwhile to categorize basic needs into groups. The first is to design a comprehensive communication mechanism and to deliver the decade of healthy ageing messages to all stakeholders, most importantly to older people themselves. The sooner the information disseminates and is well understood, the more active the stakeholder participation should be.

A second key group of needs is to develop a strategy for partnerships that are going to be crucial in engagement of key groups, delivery of services and for research and advocacy. Civil society, government agencies and the private sector are three important constituents of the partnerships spectrum, and a clear plan for involving them must be developed at both macro and micro levels.

A third is to create guiding groups at national level (and at provincial or sub-national levels too in the case of larger countries) comprising representatives from different sectors who can ensure dynamic planning, implementation and monitoring of actions.

Fourthly, the decade also provides an important opportunity to strengthen LTC services and improve integrated care – fundamentally important blocks of healthy ageing that require greater attention. Community-based LTC will have to be reinforced by promoting self-care and by training and capacity-building of formal and informal caregivers. Primary care needs must be addressed in remote and rural settings, assuring integrated care for older people. Existing models and past experiences from Help Age Global network and from organizations like GRAVIS in India may provide replicable insights. The knowledge accumulated by senior-age people’s organizations, especially how to strengthen intergenerational exchanges to ensure lifelong application of healthy ageing principles, is a valuable resource worth utilizing.

COVID-19-related challenges are already a hindrance and will likely continue to hamper progress on healthy ageing for many years. Mitigation strategies will have to be worked out in advance in the context of community education and delivery of care services using digital education, telemedicine and within COVID guidelines, keeping the local context and situation in view. Existing healthcare infrastructure overburdened by the pandemic will have to be used judiciously. Future of Work

What is the World Economic Forum doing about including older people in the workforce?

There is a global myth that productivity declines as workers age. In fact, including older workers is an untapped source for growth.

The world has entered a new phase of demographic development where people are living longer and healthier lives. As government pension schemes are generally ill-equipped to manage this change, insurers and other private-sector stakeholders have an opportunity to step in.https://www.weforum.org/videos/promoting-an-age-inclusive-workforce-living-learning-earning-longer

The World Economic Forum, along with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and AARP, have created a learning collaborative with over 50 global employers including AIG, Allianz, Aegon, Home Instead, Invesco and Mercer. These companies represent over two million employees and $1 trillion in annual revenue.

Complete Article HERE!

Qualitative Study Shares Strategies for Successful End of Life Conversations for Patients With Cancer

By

End-of-life (EOL) discussions such as advanced care, palliative care, and discontinuation of treatment are consistently being missed, according to a study published in JAMA Network Open; however, investigators highlighted existing strategies that are being utilized to achieve successful EOL conversations.

Investigators found that out of 423 outpatients encounters with 141 patients with advanced cancer, only 21 encounters (5%) included EOL discussions. When investigators included a random sample of 93 encounters, 35 encounters (35%) included missed opportunities for EOL conversations. Three patient/oncologist dyads had more than 1 encounter with a conversation pertaining to EOL, which translated to 17 of 141 dyads (12%) having at least 1 event of EOL discourse. The dyads included 13 of 39 oncologists (33%).

“In this secondary analysis of outpatient oncology visits, EOL discussions were rare and missed opportunities for these discussions were common. When oncologists did discuss EOL, they framed it around trade-offs, anticipatory guidance, and acknowledging patients as experts,” investigators of the study said. 

Investigators identified 3 strategies that are being used to navigate opportunities for successful EOL conversations:

Those who take advantage of opportunities for EOL discussions are able to reevaluate treatment options based on patients’ concerns, outlining the risks and benefits between treatment continuation and discontinuation. When suggesting chemotherapy for treatment, it is imperative to be transparent in letting patients know it could prolong survival, but there would be discomfort from adverse effects, the investigators stated. This allows the patients to make decisions about their own future.

Another strategy that has been utilized when making EOL decisions is allowing patients to be experts on their treatment decisions in order to meet their goals. This was accomplished by positing questions such as “What would you like?” and “What was the goal you would like to attain?”. By exploring a patient’s goals and allowing them to lead the conversation, the patient can shape treatment recommendations. Patients are able to explore their thoughts and feelings with regard to treatment discontinuation in a manner that is approachable. This allows one to act as a facilitator who creates an environment of reflection, while the patient shifts their focus to decision making.

The use anticipatory guidance to frame conversations pertaining to treatment reevaluation is another useful strategy. Anticipatory guidance can be used to identify a potential timeframe in which patients will need to make decisions regarding quality of life over cancer-directed treatments. During this time, it is the oncologist’s responsibility to provide sign posts to convey when it may be time to consider quality of life over treatment. This helps patients set appropriates goals and limits as to when they might like to discontinue treatment.

There are a number of hurdles that lead to missed opportunities for or deflected EOL conversations, one of which including responding inadequately to patient concerns. Patients who are concerned about disease progression or dying are often met with partial, avoidant, or absent responses instead of opening the conversation about EOL, which limits the opportunity for patients’ conversations around goals, values, and preferences. Additionally, giving little to no response when a patient expresses fear at the idea of living for years with late stage disease could prevent the occurrence of conversations around disease burden, treatment decision making, and EOL care.

Although speaking about the future optimistically may seem helpful it does little to address patient concerns. Instead of using anecdotes about other patients who exceeded life expectancy, consider using that moment to realistically discuss the patient’s prognosis.

Additionally, expressing concern over patient’s decision to discontinue treatment could be another opportunity for a missed discussion. Although one might be able to justify their treatment decisions by stating that they are in line with the patient’s goal, it is a missed chance for discourse pertaining to quality of life and treatment goals. Moreover, declaring a patient’s next steps for treatment without holding a proper conversation is yet another missed opportunity wherein a conversation about the patient’s options could have taken place.

“Although we recognize that not every patient or appointment may necessitate an EOL discussion, all patients in this study had stage IV malignant neoplasm and their oncologists had previously acknowledged that they ‘would not be surprised if they were admitted to an intensive care unit or died within one year.’ Despite the urgent necessity of EOL discussions within this population, we found far more missed opportunities than actual discussions in this analysis,” the investigators concluded.

Reference

Knutzen KE, Sacks OA, Brody-Bizar OC, et al. Actual and missed opportunities for end-of-life care discussions with oncology patients: A qualitative study. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(6):e2113193. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.13193

Complete Article HERE!

Can Psychedelics Help Make Dying Easier?

“I need to be in a space where I am not hopeless,” says one terminal cancer patient who is suing the Justice Department and the DEA for her right to use psilocybin

By &

Erinn Baldeschwiler had already been having a rough go of it. A mother of two teens, she was going through a divorce, moving out of her house, and splitting from her business partner all as the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was becoming a reality. Amid it all, she was diagnosed with stage four, triple-negative metastatic breast cancer. The doctors told her that even with chemotherapy every week — something which she knew would severely impact her quality of life — and immunotherapy every two weeks, she likely had about two years to live.

“It was devastating,” says Baldeschwiler, 49. “I thought, what if I’m not going to be here for my kids? A dear friend passed very suddenly, unexpectedly from cancer a few years back and I just know the pain that it leaves behind. It was really, really heavy.”

Now Baldeschwiler, along with Michal Bloom, another cancer patient diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in 2017, their palliative care physician, Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, and his clinic, AIMS Institute, are suing the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Baldeschwiler and Bloom want to try psilocybin, the psychoactive component in psychedelic mushrooms, in a therapeutic context for what’s sometimes called “end-of-life distress,” depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges that can come along with a terminal diagnosis. 

Kathryn Tucker, one of seven attorneys on the case, says Baldeschwiler and Bloom have the right to access psilocybin under Washington state’s Right to Try law, a law which permits patients with a terminal illness to access drugs that are currently being researched, but not yet approved. The federal government, she says, is wrongfully interfering with that right.

According to Tucker, who has devoted much of her career to helping pass and reform legislation meant to ease the suffering of those at the end of their lives, states are the primary authority for the regulation of medicine. And yet, in January, Tucker says, when she wrote to the Drug Enforcement Administration, on behalf of  Aggarwal, Baldeschwiler, and Bloom, asking them how they should go about accessing psilocybin, the administration wrote back saying they couldn’t because psilocybin is a Schedule I drug on the Controlled Substances Act, the most restrictive category defined as drugs with “no medical use” and a “high potential for abuse.” (Typically, physicians with terminal patients would go straight to a manufacturer to get access to a drug under a state’s Right to Try law, but they needed to write to the Drug Enforcement Administration about the process for access since psilocybin is federally illegal.)

In addition to Washington state, 40 states have Right to Try laws, although they’re all worded slightly differently. (Some use language like “terminally ill” while others say “life threatening,” which could change who qualifies.) Overlaid on top of these state Right to Try laws is a federal Right to Try law, which President Trump signed in 2018. In this case, Tucker and the fellow attorneys are primarily focused on patients’ rights under Washington’s Right to Try law, but are using the federal Right to Try law to bolster their argument.

Both the Washington law and the federal law state that terminal patients can access drugs that are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration so long as they’ve successfully made it through the first phase of an FDA-approved clinical trial and are currently being investigated. Psilocybin is currently in the final phase of research before FDA approval, and has shown so much promise for treatment-resistant depression and major depressive disorder that it’s been granted “breakthrough therapy” status by the FDA.

“The DEA just did not know about or did not understand Right to Try and this lawsuit is something of an educational vehicle,” Tucker says. Yes, she says, psilocybin is on the Controlled Substances Act, but in the hierarchy of legislation, The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which Right to Try falls under, trumps the Controlled Substances Act. Tucker says DEA officials just don’t understand that or are behaving as though they don’t. (The Department of Justice declined to comment for this story.)

“I don’t want my diagnosis to be upsetting and dark and hopeless for my kids,” says Baldeschwiler. “So I need to be in a space where I am not hopeless and there is peace. I know for certain if I’m negative and ‘woe is me,’ and desperate and have feelings of like ‘I just want to check out,’ that’s going to make it a hundred times worse.”

Baldeschwiler first got the idea to do psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy from Aggarwal, who she’d found after looking around for more holistic treatment plans in the Seattle, Washington area. Aggarwal discovered what he says is the extraordinary potential of psilocybin to help cancer patients when working with the psilocybin research group at New York University.

Researchers, going back to the late 1950s, found psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD showed promise for end-of-life distress as well as a host of other mental health conditions, from alcoholism to trauma. Much of this research, however, is not considered valid by the Food and Drug Administration because it did not follow their current protocols.

After Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law in 1970, there was essentially a decades-long ban on psychedelic research. It was a landmark study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, in 2006 — showing psilocybin holds promise for end-of-life distress in cancer patients — that largely jumpstarted what’s now known as the “Psychedelic Renaissance,” the second wave of psychedelic research in the U.S. since the 60s. The study found that after two or three psilocybin sessions, a majority of participants had significant and positive changes in their mood, while 33 percent rated the experience as the most spiritually significant experience of their life, comparable to the birth of a first child or the death of a parent. Since then, this research has continued with the same results in trials at Johns Hopkins and New York University.

“Many, many patients come to me wanting this,” says Aggarwal of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. “They read about it in the news or in Michael Pollan’s book.” He says it’s hard to predict, but there’s surely millions of terminally ill patients who could benefit from psilocybin therapy. In 2021 alone, an estimated 1.9 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. That doesn’t even take into account, says Aggarwal, all the other terminally ill patients, such as those with Lou Gehrig’s disease, whom he also works with.

Susan Patz, a 62-year-old woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease, filed an Amicus brief, a statement which can be filed to the court by someone in favor of a particular side of a case, for this lawsuit. Patz lives in the town of Monroe, Washington, where her husband John is now her caretaker as she slowly loses agency over her body and even her ability to breathe and swallow. 

“Because of the ALS, I have had to give up a lot of the activities I was passionate about,” she wrote to the court in a brief filed on May 24th. “I loved gardening, and I used to delight in driving the tractor around our property. I loved to swim at the YMCA five days a week. I loved cooking and trying new recipes. I can no longer do any of those things.” She often stays up until 3 or 4 in the morning, because she can’t sleep; she used to be “foodie,” but now doesn’t want to eat or even see friends for fear that they’ll see her as a “sick person.”

“I am desperate to try something that will work, something that will enable me to experience joy and pleasure again,” she wrote to the court. “If the Right-to-Try laws don’t allow someone like me the chance to try something that may help alleviate my suffering, then what good are they?”

On June 21st, the Department of Justice will file a brief on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Administration. On July 12, the petitioners — Aggarwal and his patients — will be given the opportunity to reply. And then, likely in September, the oral argument will take place in which, Tucker says, they may get their first insights into where the court stands on the case. She’s hopeful that perhaps they won’t even get that far, though, because the Drug Enforcement Administration will reach out with the intention of finding a resolution.

Either way, Tucker says, if the case passes, the next doctor and patient who want access to psilocybin for end-of-life distress shouldn’t need to take it to court again. If they succeed in Washington, then, she says, doctors and patients in states with Right to Try laws should be able to access psilocybin.

There’s many unknowns, however, about how doctors and patients would go about notifying the DEA when they’re going to conduct psilocybin therapy — and how they would access the psilocybin itself. Currently, under Right to Try laws, doctors don’t need government approval at all — they can go straight to manufacturers to request access to a drug that’s under investigation for their patient. But the process might be different for psilocybin and a host of practical issues exist, too, such as that it’s difficult to find federally-licensed labs making synthetic psilocybin as there’s no publicly available directory. At this point, Tucker says, they’re just focused on taking things in “small bites.”

“It kind of kills me that I have to be dying to even possibly have access to this medicine when I think it could be incredibly helpful for so many people that maybe don’t fall into that category,” says Baldeschwiler. “I truly, truly am hoping that we have some open minds and open hearts with regards to the DEA and that they honor the intent and the letter of the law because we fall within it.”

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