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I’ve been doing lots of reading about death and dying over the past months (so what else is new? you are saying to yourself, I’m sure) and I enjoy sharing some of the great articles I come across. Much of the writing comes from the US – and the differences between our two systems of health care are so great that much of what is written about hospice and end of life care is not directly relevant to Canadians. When I came across this great article from Australia, I immediately wanted to share it. Interesting to note that Australia came 2nd in the world on the rankings of end of life care. I think Canada came 9th. We have much to learn!

When life is coming to a close: three common myths about dying

Dying at home isn’t necessarily a good death

On average 435 Australians die each day. Most will know they are at the end of their lives. Hopefully they had time to contemplate and achieve the “good death” we all seek. It’s possible to get a good death in Australia thanks to our excellent healthcare system – in 2015, our death-care was ranked second in the world.

We have an excellent but chaotic system. Knowing where to find help, what questions to ask, and deciding what you want to happen at the end of your life is important. But there are some myths about dying that perhaps unexpectedly harm the dying person and deserve scrutiny.


Read more – A real death: what can you expect during a loved one’s final hours?


Myth 1: positive thinking can delay death

The first myth is that positive thinking cures or delays death. It doesn’t. The cultivation of specific emotions does not change the fact that death is a biological process, brought about by an accident, or disease processes that have reached a point of no return.

Fighting the good fight, remaining positive by not talking about end of life, or avoiding palliative care, have not been shown to extend life. Instead, positive thinking may silence those who wish to talk about their death in a realistic way, to express negative emotions, realise their time is limited and plan effectively for a good death or access palliative care early, which has actually been shown to extend life.

For those living closer to the prospect of death, being forced to manage their emotions is not just difficult but also unnecessary, and counterproductive to getting the help we know is important at the end of life.

Myth 2: dying at home means a good death

The second myth is dying at home always means a good death. While Australians prefer to die at home, most die in hospital. Managing a death at home requires substantial resources and coordination. Usually at least one resident carer is needed. This presents a problem. Currently 24% of Australians live alone and that’s predicted to grow to 27% by 2031. We also know many Australian families are geographically dispersed and cannot relocate to provide the intensive assistance required.

The role of the carer may be rewarding but it’s often hard work. We know timing of death is unpredictable, depending on the disease processes. Nurses, doctors and allied health professionals visit, problem solve and teach the carer to perform end-of-life care. They don’t move in, unless they’re hired in a private capacity; a possible but pricey alternative. Finally, specialist equipment is required. While this is usually possible, problems can arise if equipment is hired out for a specific time and the patient doesn’t die within that allotted time.


Read more: To die at home or in hospital? Aussies want one but we fund the other


It’s not a failure to die in a hospital, and may be the best option for many Australians. While it would appear that large public or private hospitals may not be the best places to die, in many areas they provide excellent palliative care services. Appropriate end-of-life planning needs to take this into account.

Myth 3: pushing on with futile treatment can’t hurt

A window of opportunity exists to have a good death. Pushing on with treatment that has no benefit or is “futile” can be distressing for the patient, family and the doctors. Doctors are not obliged to offer futile treatment, but unfortunately patients or family may demand them because they don’t understand the impact.

There are cases where people have been resuscitated against better medical judgement because family members have become angry and insisted. The outcome is usually poor, with admission to the intensive care unit, and life support withdrawn at a later date. In these cases, we have merely intervened in the dying process, making it longer and more unpleasant than it needs to be. The window for a good death has passed. We are prolonging, not curing death and it can be unkind – not just for those sitting at the bedside.


Read more: Doctors still provide too many dying patients with needless treatment


The story of a good death is perhaps not as interesting as a terrible one. Yet there are many “good death” stories in Australia. There are likely to be many more if some of the myths that surround dying are better understood.

 

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Preface: I just reread my last post, written nearly a month ago. I love the optimism in the conclusion, my happiness at being home amidst all my fixed points. Alas, within a few days I had somehow suffered an injury that left me with a pulled piriformis muscle and a resulting pinching of my sciatic nerve. (I know, this is too much information for most of you!) The result has been intense pain such that I have rarely experienced (48 hours of labour outdoes it but that was long ago, and with an excellent result!) It’s given me a new perspective on pain, on how exhausting and debilitating it is – and yet how largely invisible pain is, and thus people can assume (wrongly!) that it’s no big deal.

Many times over the past weeks, I’ve thought about how people reacted to my sister’s pain – suggesting she might be exaggerating or even making it up. I remember the orderlies who demanded that she “scoot over” onto their gurney from her hospital bed. Riddled with tumours up and down her spine, she could barely move, let alone “scoot over” upon command.

My sciatic pain was nothing compared to hers, which is why I hesitated to write about it. But as a nurse I worked with yesterday at hospice said, “it’s certainly not a lot of fun.”

All that to say, I haven’t been sitting at my desk for a long time – hence my silence here.

As readers may remember, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my sister Carol’s death. As the date approached, I’ve thought a lot about the impact of her death on my life, and about what it means to lose a sibling. So I will share some of those thoughts here.

I fully recognize that not all siblings are close, often separated as they are by geography, age and even generation, by life choices, and historic grievances tracing back to childhood. Though my sister and I had had a few low points in her relationship (especially when I became a hippie and frequently criticized her for taking a “straight job.” I was insufferable!) But once I came to my senses and returned to university to become a teacher myself, our bond grew closer and closer.

When our mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, Carol and I promised we would care for one another when we were sick or in need of help. And I was able to fulfill my half of that bargain when her cancer (originally diagnosed in 1978) returned with an unstoppable force in January 1997.

As often happens when someone is seriously ill, we became closer than we had ever been. Spending hours together, watching videos and bad daytime TV, remembering our childhood antics, talking about hopes and dreams (and fears).

When she died on July 4, 1997, I was devastated. Even though we all knew the end was coming, we had focussed on the immediate – tests, blood transfusions, medications – anything to make her more comfortable. My days were taken up with helping her, organizing her care, and commuting back and forth between Toronto, where she lived, and Ottawa where my immediate family resided. And then, suddenly, all that was gone. After months of thinking about what Carol needed, I had no idea how to carry on.

One of my strongest memories from that period was my desire for some sort of visible sign of my loss. A black arm band, a long black dress (as worn by widows in the Portuguese and Italian communities where I had lived for many years) – something to indicate that I was in mourning.

Though friends and colleagues sent cards and flowers immediately after Carol’s death, soon enough (far too soon for me) they began to carry on as if nothing had happened. Yes, I had a brand new job as the Director of Women’s Studies, and there were responsibilities I had to fulfill. But I still needed consoling.

What I found so difficult was the silence. Perhaps people didn’t know what to say.  Perhaps they found my bereaved state frightening. I had certainly been in their shoes before Carol died.  But now I experienced first hand the impact of avoidance and silence.

One factor, I think, was that most people my age had not yet experienced the loss of a close contemporary, be it a friend or relative. I was only 47 and Carol, just 51. While most of us experienced our grandparents’ deaths, and some of us, parents, siblings were part of the fabric of our lives, people who knew us from the very beginning (or soon thereafter), people with whom we could still consider ourselves young and more or less invincible.

At hospice, I see many people who are faced with the death of a sibling. I can still vividly recall the first person – her sister was a teacher, as Carol had been, her career and life now cut short by cancer’s horrible force. Her sister brought in baked goods almost every time she visited, and she would share the lemon bread, blueberry muffins, and other treats with the staff and volunteers. It was something concrete she could do, when there was nothing she could do to prevent her sister from dying.

Though we are not supposed to talk about our personal lives, I told this woman that my sister had died four years before. We didn’t discuss details, only that I, like her, had been her caregiver. She thanked me for telling her about my loss, and I could see her shoulders relax as she realized that she was not the only one.

Several years later, I bumped into her on the street.

“You know what I tell people?” she told me. “I tell them that when I met you, and I could see that you had lost your sister and you were still standing, and volunteering even, I knew I would survive the loss of my sister too.”

After Carol died, I searched for books that might help me deal with my loss and grief. While there were many books on parental and spousal loss, I found virtually nothing about losing a sibling. It’s one of the reasons I started writing about Carol around the time that I took the hospice training. Not only did I want to honour her with my words, but I wanted to let others know that I understand what it means to lose someone who has known (and put up with) you your entire life.

The death of a sibling can leave a deep and abiding void in one’s life. There will never be another Carol in my life. But I am grateful beyond words for what she taught me. And for the ways she has enabled me to help others through their loss and grief.

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It’s 2017, so they tell me, though I have been laid up in bed since late December with a nasty virus, and have trouble remembering which day of the week it is.

In a few days it will be 20 years since my sister Carol was diagnosed with the virulent cancer that would take her life 6 months later, on July 4, 1997. I had just begun a well deserved and much needed sabbatical and was busy making plans for a research trip when my sister called to say that the cancer was back.

“Fuck, Fuck, FUCK,” I said, when she told me.

“Don’t say that,” she said.

“But it’s just not fair! You’ve done so well! Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I said again, the only words that seemed to capture the extent of my anger and grief and shock.

“Don’t say that,” she said. “It just makes it harder for me.”

“OK,” I agreed. “I’ll be on the first train tomorrow to see you.”

And so it began. The 6 month “journey” in cancerland – through endless visits to doctors and hospitals, CT scans and MRIs, biopsies, and surgery. Vomiting and K-basins. Fear. And always pain. And finally death.

So many of the details of those six months are still vivid in my mind and my heart. The endless waiting for results, the parade of PSWs and “sitters.” Dozens upon dozens of phone calls on pay phones, in the days long before cell phones. And countless conversations with Carol about what she wanted and needed. I would have done anything I could have for her. And in the end it was never enough.

Shortly after she died, I began to tell people that I had been transformed by Carol’s death. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I knew it was true. I was no longer running away from death. Four years later, I would begin what became my 15 year journey as a hospice volunteer. “My sister works through me,” I would tell friends when I first began my volunteer work with dying people and their families. Sometimes I could almost hear her telling me, “Slow down. There’s nothing you have to do. Just listen to their stories.” And I did.

And I still do, all these 20 years later. I also write and talk and speak at conferences and churches and meeting halls. I look for opportunities to share my book about caring for my sister and my elderly parents, in hopes that I can help others who are facing this challenging time in their lives.

When I first began volunteering at hospice, friends would look at me strangely as I would wax eloquent about my volunteering. Some thought it morbid, others that I was courting depression in being with dying people week after week. Few would believe me when I told them my time at hospice was the most hopeful part of my week.

More often now, people ask me what I do at hospice – what it’s like giving care to dying people, and talking with their families. More and more, of course, friends and strangers alike have experienced the death of someone they love. Or they are watching their aging parents coming to terms with their loss of independence and failing health. Perhaps they have received a difficult diagnosis themselves. Now they too want to talk about death and dying.

And so I will continue to write, here and elsewhere, about life and death. I’ll read the latest books on the subject from the library, and watch movies about “d and d.” I’ll continue to give talks wherever I can,  and I’ll look forward to hearing other people’s stories.

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be part of the first annual Provincetown Book Festival. There were wonderful readings by poets, novelists, memoirists, and others, great discussions, and a book fair, where authors displayed and sold their books. Along with 14 other authors, I spent the beautiful sunny day sharing my work and selling and signing my book.

I was a little concerned that people in a vacation spot like Provincetown might not be interested in buying a book about caregiving, death and dying. What surprised me was how many people shared their own stories with me – deeply personal intimate stories of illness, caring for parents, and coming to terms with death.

Many of the people who approached my table shook their heads when I told them what the book was about – not because they weren’t interested, but because their parents were dead. “I cared for my parents into their nineties,” one woman said. “And we cared for my partner’s parents too. It was a long stretch.”

Not surprisingly, given the fact that daughters by far and away do the work of caregiving in comparison to sons, most of the people who stayed to talk with me were women. Now in their 60s, they were beginning to think about their own aging process, and who might care for them. “I better give that book to my kids,” one woman laughed. “It’ll be their turn soon.”

For those women who don’t have offspring to whom they can turn, the options may be more limited. Nieces (and nephews) may be willing to take up the task of caring for their aging aunts (and uncles) – but it’s likely they’ll have their own parents to worry about already.

As Baby Boomers, many of us are fiercely independent, and dread the thought of becoming a burden on our children or family members. I urge readers of my book to begin talking about these issues now, before it’s too late, and we find ourselves in a state of emergency. What heartened me about yesterday was how many people were more than willing to have these discussions – with one another, with other people who approached my table (and my fellow writers, and with me.

A couple of women who came by the table said that the topic of my book was just too close to home. Two women had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and were undergoing treatment. A stark reminder of how present cancer and other illnesses are in all our lives.

This willingness to talk openly about life and death is one of the reasons why I love being in Provincetown. Yes, lots of people are here to spend their days at the beach, before relaxing at the tea dances, restaurants, and bars, but many others still carry the memories and images of how AIDS devastated this town in the 80s and 90s. Provincetown has a higher proportion of people with HIV/AIDS than the rest of the country, and year round Provincetown residents work with and support the services that sustain people with HIV/AIDS. They are more than willing to share their stories with me over a glass of wine at the bar where I love to write.

Sometimes I worry that too many people have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to illness, death and dying (as in, if I don’t talk about it, it won’t get me!) Being able to have talks such as the ones I’ve had here in Provincetown give me hope that some people are embracing the opportunities to talk.

PS: The book fair got terrific coverage in the Cape Cod Sunday Times!

Here’s the link to the story:

http://www.capecodtimes.com/news/20160918/authors-drawn-to-provincetown-book-festival#ReaderReaction

 

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A piece I wrote about my sister Carol was excerpted in The Caregiver’s Voice today.
Here’s the link:
http://thecaregiversvoice.com/avadian-musings/we-will-remember-you/

I’ve written lots of blog posts in the past few days – alas, all in my head, as I’ve been caring for my sweet little grandson who is under the weather (with a fever! in this heat!)

More to come soon….
Katherine

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My family has been sharing a nasty flu bug for the past month of so. I have to admit that I was the first – but I like to think that I didn’t pass it on to my partner, who got sick a full week after me! Regardless of its origin, it’s now spread to my son-in-law, daughter, and grandchildren. Good times! And it’s not even time to get my flu shot yet!

I have to say that working in hospice has taught me a lot about patience in the face of the relatively minor illnesses we’ve had. Being with people whose illnesses are terminal certainly put things in perspective, even if it doesn’t stop me from whining occasionally!

I still vividly remember an experience I had at hospice a couple of years ago. I was helping a staff member to reposition a patient who had suffered from a neuro-muscular disease for several years and now was dying of cancer. I noted that the staff member seemed to have a bad cold and offered my commiseration. She replied, “I know, and I really don’t have time to be sick!”

After we had finished and the staff member had left the room, the resident said to me, with a strong note of anger in her voice, “Do you think I have time for this? I have no time.”

Her comment has stayed with me – in fact, it’s one of the things that led me to entitle my new book “I don’t  have time for this! A compassionate guide to caring for our parents and ourselves.

And I’ve thought about her, and all the people I’ve met, whose time has gone, in so many cases, far too soon.

 

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Last week, at a meeting of the Inter-professional Council of the hospice where I volunteer (and of which I am a member), the clinical care director began her report on recent events by introducing the term “families with a lot of love.” Such families were often referred to as “difficult” or “complicated” families in the past (not “dysfunctional” as that’s another type altogether) – I’m not a big fan of any of those terms to be honest, and I’ve been heard to say, many a time, “every family is complicated.” But I do like the term families with a lot of love. It’s used to denote families where there are many people who want to visit and accompany the resident who is dying. That can often mean there are a lot of people in the patient’s room – and sometimes in the sun room, kitchen, and other public areas of the hospice.

While it can sometimes make for a lot of activity – especially in the kitchen – I love seeing lots of family around. To a certain extent our role as volunteers shifts to engaging with family members rather than caring for the patient, but to me it is so wonderful to see families taking time off work, bringing the grandchildren to visit, and supporting one another as best they can, through the death of someone they all love. What of better way to leave this world, I think, than to feel the love of so many people.

The discussion made me think, once again, about the language we use (with one another and in our charting and other forms of communication). It’s all too easy to refer to one resident as a “sweet lady” or gentleman, while another becomes “particular,” “fussy,” or “demanding.” Similarly, a family that’s been through the wringer with their loved one’s cancer journey may well feel exhausted, frightened, even cantankerous. And finally we need to resist speculating about why a patient might have no family members visiting them. We really don’t know people’s stories or what happened to them before they arrived at the doors of the hospice. Most of us do a great job – but for me at least it’s always good to have a reminder to bring my non-judging self to my weekly shift (along with my beginner’s mind!)

 

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