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Archive for the ‘end of life care’ Category

I’ve been very quiet on this site over the past few months and it’s not just because I’ve been busy with writing or travelling or recovering from one bug or another. It’s because I’ve been stopping myself from saying what I’m about to write.

I’ve been a hospice volunteer for 16 and a half years. That’s a long time – and I proudly tell people about it at every opportunity I get. When I tell someone at hospice (usually a family member who asks how long I’ve been there) that I’ve been volunteering this long, they are always amazed – not at how wonderful I am (though of course I am – hahaha!) but at what a good place the hospice must be to have such dedicated volunteers. I suspect those readers of this blog who are volunteers have had the same experience.

But – and here’s the but I’ve not been writing about – increasingly I’ve come to question what my role at the hospice really is. As I’ve written before, one of the reasons I chose to volunteer in the residence was because I wanted to be part of a team. As an introvert and a writer (they do often go together I find!), I spend a lot of time alone. And I felt reassured that I would be working with a community of volunteers and staff to care for residents and their families.

In the early years, that is exactly how it felt. I still remember my Monday morning shifts. My “buddy” Alex and I  would arrive at 9 for our shift and invariably one of the staff would say something like, “Oh it’s Monday – I knew it would be a good day because you two would be on with me!” And I felt instantly appreciated. Often I’d get a hug when I arrived, and a thank you hug as I left to start the rest of my day.

Very often now, when I arrive, no one says hello. I sit with the volunteer I’m relieving and we do our report. She’s always happy to see me, so in that way I feel welcomed. But more often than not, a staff member will come into the room while we’re doing report and tell us of a lunch order, or someone who needs juice, or a task that needs doing. I’ve developed a self-protective habit of not going to do anything until I have familiarized myself with who is in the residence and what their needs and abilities are. And because as I’ve aged over the years (how did that happen?) I can’t remember the food orders as easily, so I will ask the staff member to write it down for me or to wait until I’ve done with what I’m doing.

Many weeks now, I find myself caught up in cooking, cleaning, emptying and loading the dishwasher, and find that at the end of my shift I haven’t had time to sit with a single patient. I might have talked briefly with a family member while I’m making someone’s lunch, but I haven’t really had time to engage in a “real” conversation or to let them know that I am really there for them, that that’s the most important thing I can be doing.

I recognize that once the “pioneering” days are over, institutions can become more routinized, with tasks being divided up in a silo manner, with each role having a specific set of tasks, and very little sharing of tasks happening between people. So, getting juice or ice water or tea or food are all tasks of the volunteer – even if that volunteer happens to be sitting with a dying person or talking to a distraught family member.

To me that seems like we’ve somehow lots a sense of real role and value of hospice volunteers. We are not (or shouldn’t be) unpaid personal support workers or cooks or cleaners – though I don’t think any of those tasks is somehow “beneath” me. I believe we are at hospice to support dying people and their families. We bring a wealth of experience – at work and in life – that can serve the people who come to our hospice. I don’t want to feel like I’m somehow slacking off if I spend a little extra time talking to a volunteer or to a family member. And at times, I’ve felt that some staff see my “merely” sitting as just that – wasting time.

Over the years, and especially lately, other volunteers have shared these concerns with me. Being an old-timer, I’m not afraid to share our concerns with the volunteer coordinator or other senior administrative staff. Though I’ve found a sympathetic ear, I’ve never seen any real change happen. And it leaves me, frankly, discouraged.

I still tell others what an amazing place the hospice is. I write and publish work that advocates for the expansion of hospice and palliative care services. But this nagging feeling remains. So I’m writing this today because I don’t want to remain silent any more. Perhaps some of you can offer guidance, ideas, or advice. I look forward to hearing from you. And I feel better for having finally written this!

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For those of you who are curious about why I wrote this report, here’s the introductory note I wrote to explain what had changed between 2013 (when I wrote the first report) and 2018 when this report was released:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
MARY OLIVER, “THE SUMMER DAY”

When I wrote the first edition of this report in 2013, Contemporary Family Trends: Death, Dying and Canadian Families, I could not have imagined how much the circumstances around death and dying would change in a few short years. While I knew that efforts were under way to legalize what I termed “assisted suicide” in the 2013 edition, I did not anticipate the Supreme Court ruling in Carter v. Canada in 2015, nor the passage of Quebec’s Bill 52 and Bill C-14 that legalized medical assistance in dying (MAID) in June 2016. Although the issues surrounding medically assisted dying are not fully resolved, MAID is legal across Canada (under certain circumstances), and to date more than 2,600 people have obtained medical assistance in dying.

Despite opposition from some organizations and individuals, it appears that most Canadians have come to accept MAID as a fact of life (and, of course, death). There can be little doubt, however, that the silence surrounding death and dying with which I opened my previous report has – to a degree – been broken.

Today, we see countless news articles, television and radio programs, and a vast number of accounts of death and dying experiences every day – and not just about MAID.  Whether it’s stories about reclaiming death (e.g. death doulas, green burials, living funerals), coverage of the “slow medicine” movement resisting highly medicalized geriatric and end-of-life care, or the debate surrounding legislation such as Bill C-277, An Act Providing for the Development of a Framework on Palliative Care in Canada, it’s clear that change is in the air.

How have these changes affected Canadians’ experiences of death and dying? Certainly nothing so earth-shattering as an end of death itself has occurred. What has been the impact of these developments on families across Canada? How do factors of race, indigeneity, income, location, gender and sexual identity, among others, continue to determine people’s experiences of death?

Despite the significant evolution in the conversations on death and dying, most Canadians approach death with some measure of fear, ignorance and dread. Thus, major sections from the 2013 edition of this report remain substantially the same, with updated information and statistics. Most people still wish they could avoid death. For the most part, Canadians have not heeded Mary Oliver’s sage advice to embrace each day of our “one wild and precious life.”

For the full report, click this link: http://vanierinstitute.ca/death-becoming-less-taboo/

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It’s been a bit of a whirlwind this week with the release of the report on Monday and four radio interviews that morning (all before 8:20 in the morning!). It’s been wonderful sharing the report with people and initiating conversations about the importance of talking about death and dying.

On Thursday, I attended the annual palliative care education day in Ottawa. The keynote speaker was Jeremie Saunders (founder of the amazing podcast Sickboy). If you haven’t had a chance to hear Jeremie speak, I strongly advise that you check out the podcast. You can find it on I-Tunes (or wherever you get your podcasts). So far Jeremie and his co-hosts have interviewed 140 different people about the impact of their illness on their lives. Jeremie lives with cystic fibrosis, and his story and his energy, passion, and truth-telling is truly inspiring. And laugh out loud funny! Please check him out!

Today I attended Grand Rounds at the Hospice where I volunteer. Jeremie was the speaker there as well, and though I had just heard him yesterday, I enjoyed every single minute of his talk. His key AHA moments as he calls them:

  1. Be vulnerable.
  2. Life is too short for small talk.
  3. Your Actions CAN change the world.

A pretty great way to end the week!

 

 

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The report is out! Here’s the link: Family Perspectives: Death and Dying in Canada

It’s wonderful to have it launched on the first day of Hospice Palliative Care Week!

Enjoy!

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Late last year I did an interview with Dr. Karen Wyatt, a hospice physician, speaker, author, and founder of End of Life University – a series of interviews with key figures in what has been called a movement to reclaim death and dying. The interview was great fun, as we shared our common passion for end of life care. I felt like I was having a conversation with a close friend (though we have never met!), so connected are we to improving end of life care in our two countries, and throughout the world.

Have a listen, and let me know what you think! Please feel free to share with your colleagues, friends, and fellow hospice volunteers.

http://www.eoluniversity.com/apps/blog/show/45144022-lessons-from-a-hospice-volunteer-with-katherine-arnup-phd

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https://www.thespec.com/living-story/8077999-in-denial-about-death/

When I was doing research for my book “I don’t have time for this!” I created a number of google alerts on death and dying, palliative care, medical aid in dying, and elderly parents. I’ve kept those alerts active and, as a result, I receive a daily digest of all the relevant Canadian media items on these topics. I realize this probably makes me seem even weirder than I probably already did, but it’s given me access to articles and news stories I would not otherwise have seen.

The link above is one such story – a fulsome and thoughtful article about the impact our culture’s fear and denial of death is having on the institutions (hospitals, long term care homes etc.) and families in society – and the crisis it will create in the not-too-distant future. I urge you to read it – and to consider the impact that those of us who are involved in hospice care are having in breaking the silence around death and dying.

On another note, I’d like to welcome all the new followers to this blog, many of whom hail from countries where the fear of death is not so prominent. I would love to hear from followers new and not so new, about your own experiences of death and dying. Feel free to comment here – if  you have something more lengthy that you might wish to contribute, please send it my way so that I can consider including it on this blog.

If you’ve just happened upon this blog for the first time, please consider following it – there should be a button near the bottom right corner where you can click. I promise I will not be flooding your inbox. Also, feel free to scroll through the archive of postings and respond to topics from the past.

 

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I wrote the blog post below six years ago, as I faced the month of Christmas cheer (and excess) with which we are inundated, regardless of our religious faith or lack thereof. Each year, I find myself re-reading this post, as I remind myself that many many people find this time of year difficult. The loss of a loved one, an illness, an estrangement, painful memories, or longing for the memories of years gone by. And for many of us, the memories co-exist with the happy times and new traditions we have with grandchildren, friends, companions, and colleagues.

This piece is a reminder to all of us to think about those for whom this season is a challenging one.

**********

You can’t miss the fact that we are approaching Christmas, even if you tried to. Elevators and malls pump out Christmas tunes, newspapers and flyers are full of ads for the newest toys, gadgets, and must-haves. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, we are repeatedly reminded, in case we had forgotten.

But what about those people for whom Christmas is not a season of joy? Many of us set aside food and sundries for homeless shelters, buy toys for underprivileged children, send an extra donation to our favourite charities. It’s great that Christmas provides an opportunity for generosity and gratitude and I have no doubt that these actions do make a different, however small, in people’s lives. Today, though, I am thinking about a largely invisible population – people for whom Christmas has lost some of its magic, whether because of serious illness, a painful separation, or the death of someone they love. Where in this season is the place for these people amidst the shopping and celebration and feasting?

I grew up in a family where Christmas was a “big deal.” Though the gift giving would pale in comparison to the extravagances many people engage in today, still our annual rituals of new vinyl records, a new dressing gown (with a crisp new $5 bill in the pocket), a silver dollar in our stockings, the obligatory item or two of clothing, and a few “special gifts” for each of us. I can still remember the amazing service station complete with car elevator that I received when I was 10. The fact that my not very handy father had spent half the night trying to put it together made the gift all that more special. I’m certain that my sisters have equally vivid memories of their favourite gifts.

When grandchildren arrived, my mother got the chance to embrace Christmas full force. She loved buying special fancy clothing for her four granddaughters, and to “spoil” my daughters with elaborate toys I couldn’t afford. She was in her element filling stockings with trinkets she had found throughout the year – and expensive necessities (a roll of stamps, a pack of subway tokens, bookstore gift certificates).

All that changed when my mother suffered a brain aneurysm in 1991. Though she survived the aneurysm, she was left with considerable brain damage, and could no longer walk, speak clearly, or care for herself. Shopping for Christmas was clearly out of the question. Without our mother’s zest for Christmas, something was missing in “family Christmas.” It wasn’t about the presents – it was about how much my mother loved giving them. She took so much joy in being able to surprise us, to help us, to make us happy.

When my sister Carol died in 1997, “family Christmas” seemed to end.  Carol was that person in your life who always knew exactly what you needed, even though you didn’t know it until the you opened up the present. A set of dinosaur rubber stamps for my older daughter who loved dinosaurs and writing stories. A kit to make beads from wrapping paper. A beautiful sweater suitable for work for me (no one but Carol ever dared to buy me clothing). As with my mother, it wasn’t the gifts themselves that mattered. It was the fact that she knew us SO well.

It’s not that Christmas stopped after my mother became ill and my sister died. But that particular carefree (for me!), joyful, special family Christmas did.

Strangely, it’s through volunteering in hospice that Christmas was transformed yet again. Each year, the hospice asks people to take on extra shifts, as regular volunteers fly off for family gatherings or stay home to cook and be with their own families. The year I graduated from the hospice course (2001) I eagerly signed up for extra shifts. I expected the hospice to be a sad and dreary place, as families celebrated their last Christmas together, or their prepared for their first Christmas without Mom (or Dad).

When I walked into the residence that year, I could hear singing coming out of Room 4. Jingle Bells. Joy to the World.

“Who’s being so inappropriate as to sing Christmas carols,” I wondered. I soon discovered my answer. Room four was filled with family, bearing gifts, shaking Christmas bells, trimming the tiny tree placed on the nightstand. And sitting up in the hospital bed was the queen of the day, wearing a Santa cap jauntily placed on her head, and joining in the festivities.

“You folks sure know how to celebrate,” I remarked.

“Oh yes. That’s the kind of family we are. Since she can’t come home for Christmas, we brought Christmas to her!”

I have never forgotten that image, though it’s been 11 years. Joy in the midst of dying. Celebration of life.

I learned that year that many patients “hold on” until Christmas, dying shortly after. My own mother waited so she could be with her family one last time. It is indeed a special time – not because of the presents, or the turkey, or even the beautiful music. It is special because it is a celebration of life – new life – and life well lived. And so, as I approach this holiday month, I’ll remember those faces in Room 4 that day, their joy and cheer and love. And hold all of this in my heart.

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