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I have a very difficult time dealing with people who are exhibiting signs of serious confusion or dementia. Perhaps it’s because I’m what I often describe as “pathologically honest” –  the result, no doubt, of being a judge’s daughter.  So when someone asks me a question that seems to come from way out in left field, I have a hard time not responding with what I see as “the truth.” Whether or not that’s the right thing to do, however, remains an open question.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One of the first times I faced this challenge in hospice was with Margaret. She was a woman in her 80s with a large, loving family who surrounded her with music and laughter, grandchildren and treats. One morning, when I approached her bed to ask if she wanted anything, she beckoned me closer.

“The air is changing. Can you feel it?” she whispered.

I was at a loss as to how to respond. I certainly couldn’t perceive any change in the air.

“No, I can’t,” I began.

“Well, you should be able to. It’s going to be in the Toronto Star.”

Before I could ask her precisely what the air felt like, she began talking about a complex machine she’d been asked to work on. She described gears and levers and a fantastical operating system that she seemed to understand perfectly.

“That’s amazing!” I said, in all honesty.

A few minutes later, I found myself chatting with her adult children who were relaxing in the hospice sun room. I mentioned Margaret’s comments to me and they smiled knowingly.

“Yes,” her son said. “It’s hard to know what to make of it.”

“Some people might say it’s the result of the medications she’s on. Or a lack of oxygen in blood stream. But somehow it doesn’t feel like that to me. Any way, I’m not about to ‘correct’ her,” I said.

“Neither are we,” a daughter chimed in. “And you know what? The workings of that machine she’s talking about are far too detailed to be the result of confusion. Mom never had any interest whatsoever in anything mechanical, and now she’s talking about complex mechanisms she has no business understanding.”

We settled on it being part of the mystery and left it at that.

All these years later, I can still see Margaret, sitting up straight in her bed, pointing towards the gardens and the river beyond.

****

On the weekend before she died, my sister Carol had a clarity and drive we had not seen in months. That’s part of why I was so taken aback when she seemed so disoriented when I arrived at her house on Monday.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Umm, I’m here to visit you,” I said, more than a bit unnerved.

“Katherine’s come to spend time with you,” her caregiver B. offered. “Just like she always does.”

The sound of my name seemed to jolt her back to the present. We chatted a bit about what I’d been doing and how she was feeling and things seemed back to normal.

Then, out of the blue, she asked if I still had her piano.

“Your piano?” I asked. “Of course I don’t have your piano. It’s right upstairs where it belongs.”

I’m sure she could tell by my expression that I was freaking out.

“Not that piano! My tape of the soundtrack from The Piano!”

“Yes, I still have it,” I said a little sheepishly. “Do you need it back?”

She shook her head, laughing. She always loved to tease me!

It would be the last time. The next day, we were faced with a medical crisis. And by Friday morning, she was dead.

****

I could provide many more examples of hospice patients who have exhibited everything from mild confusion to profound dementia. Some will ask the same question  over and over again, trying to make sense of their surroundings. “How did I get here?” “Why am I here?” “Where’s my husband?”

There is no simple answer to those questions, and I’m no longer sure that pathological honesty works in all circumstances. What use is it to tell someone who suffers from profound dementia that they are in a hospice, or that they are dying, or that their husband has preceded them in death? The greater likelihood is that they will repeat their question every five minutes, regardless of whether we provide an answer.

So what are we to do? I come back to the place where I always try to begin. Be with them. Simply be with the person as they are, with their confusion, with their suffering, with their sadness. It is by no means easy. But I believe it is a way to honour their humanity, in all its complexity and mystery.

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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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My last post – a death in the family – has had an amazing ride over the past five days! After I posted it on Facebook, I tried to “boost” it to reach more people and for some bizarre reason, FB deemed it to be unsuitable, objectionable content – they refused the ad and removed the message from Facebook! Magically, it reappeared a day later (perhaps because I appealed, though I doubt it!) And since then, an amazing number of people have read the post about my aunt’s last days. I am enormously gratified by the response and so glad my story reached so many people. Thanks to all of you!

It’s been a busy week, because this is National Hospice Palliative Care week. I participated on a webinar for the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association on living well, right to the end. Here’s the link to the show (I’m the first speaker, right after the introduction). I hope you enjoy it!

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Last weekend I had the privilege of accompanying my aunt on the final days of her life. Long burdened with Alzheimer’s disease,  Aunt Ruth turned 94 on Friday, accompanied by a staff member who had stayed late Thursday night so she could be the first to wish her a happy birthday. On Saturday night at 11 p.m. she took her last breath, with another staff member by her side.

One of the longest residents of Fenelon Court, the long term care residence where she spent the final years of her life, Ruth was loved by the staff, who called her Ruthie, her childhood name I had only heard in family stories. She was the youngest of my father’s five siblings and the last to leave. She was spunky, spirited, outspoken, generous, and loving.

When we arrived from Ottawa on Friday, she was somnolent, no longer responding to visitors or staff. I had brought my ukulele with me on the trip, and knowing that hearing is the last sense to leave, I set myself up by her bedside and began to play. Whether she could hear me I’ll never know, but I like to think that the music of Leonard Cohen (Hallelujah) and the gentle words of The Water is Wide provided her with comfort on her journey.

As I played, staff came in and out of the room to check on Ruth, and to offer drinks or food to me. Each time they entered, I was struck by their gentle caring and familiarity with “Ruthie.”

“She’ll do it in her own time,” one nurse commented. “You always have, haven’t you Ruthie.”

On Saturday we spent much of the day with Ruth, giving my eldest sister a much-needed respite from the long days she had been spending by her side. Once again, I sang, shared birthday cards and stories with Ruth, reminders of the love that surrounded her. When we finally went back to our hotel at 9, one of the nurses reassured us that she would sit with Ruth. She remained at her side until she died.

The next morning we returned with my sister Judy to begin cleaning our Ruth’s room. Ruth’s body was still there, and I was glad for my years of hospice volunteering that helped it seemed perfectly natural. As I remarked on the volume of clothes in her closet, I couldn’t help but notice their beautiful condition – another tribute to the careful attention of the staff.

As we prepared to walk out with the people from the funeral home, a staff member lay a quilt over her body, and as we walked slowly to the front door, staff members throughout the building lined the halls, a gesture of respect I recognized from my own hospice.

Though I am writing this post to honour Aunt Ruth, I am also honouring the amazing staff at Fenelon Court. When I knew she was in a long term care facility, I had an image of hallways filled with patients sleeping slumped over in wheelchairs, a certain smell permeating the building. I had witnessed these scenes in other long term care facilities, and I was dreading seeing my aunt in such a place.

Fenelon Court could not have been farther from those expectations! The building is bright and clean, the patients engaged in activities where possible, and attended to with care in every encounter I witness. “We are their family,” one nurse told me. “Often they have a son or daughter who rarely visits. We are here every day and we love them. They’re our family too.”

Perhaps it’s because the facility has only 67 residents – and it is designed in pods so each area is relatively small and contained. Perhaps it’s because it is located opposite an elementary school and children often visit the centre, sharing drawings, Easter activities, and joy with the residents. Perhaps it’s because it’s located in a small town, a place where community really matters. But I think there’s something more – something I can’t quite put into words – beyond respect, dignity, caring, and love. That’s what I experienced with my aunt last weekend. And for that I am enormously grateful.

Fenelon Court

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While the Hollywood image of dying often features a loving family gathering around the deathbed, life often presents a very different reality. In a chapter in my book – entitled “One Big Happy Family” – I talk about some of the challenges families may face at this difficult time. I often say that each of us, when the faced of a parent, becomes an exaggerated version of ourselves with both our best and worst characteristics showing up in spades. As well, conflicts that might have occurred decades before may resurface as siblings vie for attention and recognition.

End of Life University

What do you do when a family (your own or a patient’s) is crumbling due to unhealed resentments and irreconcilable differences? Find out now.

conflictpodcast

In today’s episode I’ll share my best tips for helping families move through conflict toward resolution during stressful times like the death of a loved one. I’ve had lots of experience with this work during my years as a hospice doctor so be prepared for a longer-than-usual episode!

Announcements:

slide01My new course Step-by-Step Roadmap for End-of-Life Planning is almost ready for release (just a few days away as I record this!) The course is simple yet comprehensive and will help you examine your mindset, values, beliefs, and fears about death before you make decisions about your end-of-life healthcare. Go to eoluniversity.com/roadmap to learn more and sign up to be notified as soon as the course is released.

Sponsorship:

supportonpatreon-e1412764908776This podcast is sponsored through the EOLU donation page…

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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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