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One of the most meaningful activities I engaged in as a residential hospice volunteer was singing to the residents. I wasn’t an official music volunteer nor was I a music therapist. I just love to sing and I have a huge repertoire of songs, from hymns to country and western favourites. I often sang to people who were anxious and finding it hard to settle down or go to sleep. Sometimes I sang to a person who was in their final days or hours and no longer responsive. I hoped that the music might reach deep inside and help them with their journey.

Recently I received a book by another hospice volunteer – someone who plays the guitar and rarely sings along. His book, The Music Between Us: Memoir of a Bedside Musician, is both a memoir and an account of his experiences playing at the bedsides of people in the final stages of their lives.

Steve Litwer, the author, visits people in their homes, in long term care facilities, and in hospitals. He brings along his guitar, and asks each person (or their family members) what sort of music they enjoy. Sometimes he will have only one visit before the client dies. On other occasions, he is able to make several visits, deepening the connection with each successive visit.

His visits with people living with dementia are especially moving. As research has shown, music can serve as an access point to memories that are not normally available to the person with dementia. But hearing a tune from a key period of their lives can rekindle memories and the person will sing the lyrics of songs, despite the fact that they have not spoken in months or even years. It’s an experience that’s rewarding for both the client and the musician as he watches the person come alive with the joy of music.

Each chapter of the book centres on the story of a particular client. Titles like “The Unlikely Hippie,” “All Blues Ain’t Blue,” and “Fifteen Pieces of Advice for the Living” provide humour and insight into the story Steve is about to tell.

As the title suggests, the book is also a memoir of Steve’s life, from his hardscrabble and abusive childhood, to his decades of wandering, avoiding intimacy, and lashing out. Over the course of the book, we read about Steve’s embrace of Christianity and his coming to understand the impact his upbringing had had on his ability to trust other people. After he retired, Steve chose hospice volunteering as a guitar player to give back to people. What he learned will be familiar to those who have volunteered in hospice – we benefit at least as much from our time with clients as they do with us. Lessons on the meaning of life, on intimacy and relationships, and on pathways to joy are among the benefits that Steve received from the people he visited.

For those readers who love music as much as I do, Steve’s book provides a broad sweep across the decades of the 20th century, as clients selected music that was meaningful to them in their lives. From the big bands of the ballroom era, to Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the hippie era, the author plays the music of their lives, and, in doing so, unearths memories of youth, dancing, and and joy to accompany his clients on their journey. For those who subscribe to Spotify, the music is available on the author’s website. to enhance your enjoyment of the book.

This book would be a welcome addition to the libraries of hospice services where volunteers, staff, and families can learn about the role of music in people’s lives.

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Here’s a lovely article about the resilience and flexibility of hospice services and volunteers in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. Now more than ever we need to find ways other than in-person to support others in need in our community.

https://lindsayadvocate.ca/covid-19-making-the-gruelling-experience-of-dying-or-grieving-even-more-painful/

Let’s do our best to reach out to neighbours, family members, friends, and people in your community, especially people who may be isolated or alone.

Be safe, be healthy, and enjoy the holidays!

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My latest video:

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People in Ontario and Quebec have expressed shock and anger at the findings of the reports produced by the military personnel who have been deployed to long-term care homes in those provinces. I have watched the news coverage, read the Ontario report closely, and listened to the premiers and the Prime Minister.

One question that remains foremost in my mind: what can I do to make sure that the system of long-term care homes is completely overhauled? We don’t need tinkering, we don’t need military personnel staying on as substitute PSWs and orderlies.
The vast majority of deaths from COVID19 in Canada have happened in long-term care homes. People have died alone, without their families nearby, without adequate palliative care, and without attention and care. Something needs to happen NOW.
If you have thoughts about what needs to happen and, in particular, what we can do to effect change in this sector, please feel free to comment here, or to write me at katherine@katherinearnup.com
We owe it to our elders, to ourselves, and to the generations coming behind us.

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What’s going to happen?

As restrictions because of COVID-19 begin to loosen across Canada, I wanted to share my latest video. I was asked to produce a series of short videos on the impact of COVID-19 on seniors. This video explores the possibilities and challenges we face today.

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As I was on my daily constitutional today (amidst polar winds and swirling snow), I passed a lengthy line of men outside the new artisanal chocolate shop in my neighbourhood. As I moved onto the street to maintain physical distance between the shoppers and myself, I found myself thinking about all the mothers who will face Mother’s Day during this extraordinary pandemic, COVID-19.

I thought about mothers of children with disabilities who are without the essential service of the personal support workers who come to their home every day to help care for their children. I thought about homeless and under-housed women who are struggling to stay healthy and warm without the comforts of a home and family. I thought about the mothers and grandmothers who will spend Mother’s Day alone, unable to enjoy the physical delights of hugs and kisses even if they’re lucky enough to live in the same city or town. I thought of the essential health care workers – physicians, nurses, personal support workers and others – who will spend Mother’s Day on the front-lines of the battle against COVID-19 – separated from their families and risking their lives to save others. I thought of the mothers and grandmothers in long-term care facilities, who are unable to see or touch or talk with their daughters and sons and grandchildren.

For those women in long-term care facilities, their lives on this Mothers’ Day are particularly precarious. The pandemic has revealed the appalling conditions in long-term care homes across this country, where COVID-19 has killed so many elderly, vulnerable people. Reports of people dying alone, gasping for breath, calling out for help, are unbearably devastating, as families wait outside, hoping for news, for a glimpse of their loved ones at the window. These women are our mothers and grandmothers. Despite our best intentions, they may well be us in the not so distant future, no matter how well we have planned.

The plight of these women and men in long-time care reveals the tremendous lack of regard our society holds for the elderly. It is the result of decades of neglect, under-funding, and greed in a society that values expediency and money above human lives.

It is my hope on this Mother’s Day that we will wake up to the tragedy that is happening to our elders in long term care. I hope it will remind people of the invaluable work that is performed by personal support workers every single day. Perhaps it will force our governments to ensure that these workers receive a living wage commensurate with the essential human service that they perform. And I hope it will remind us all of the tremendous toll COVID-19 is taking on the most vulnerable people in our society.

This Mother’s Day I will remember my mother who died nearly 14 years ago, who was fortunate to be cared for in the final years of her life by personal support workers in a small facility where she was seen as a whole person in spite of the ravages of a brain aneurysm. I will think of how fortunate I am to see my daughter and grandchildren at a distance of 6 feet and my younger daughter and her 14 month old daughter via the wonders of technology.

And though it seems insignificant in the face of this pandemic, I will send donations to the services that support mothers so that they too can survive these challenging times.

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www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/people-disabilities-personal-support-workers-covid19-1.5554052

Great article featuring my good friend (and guest speaker in my class many times, Liz Winkelaar)

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I wanted to share the second video I’ve made for Abbotsford House – this one focusses on the impact of Covid-19 on people who are caring for someone in these challenging times, whether their loved one lives with them, or at a distance, or in a long-term care home or retirement residence.

(Remember, I’m new at this! So I don’t know how to change how my expression appears on the link! Suggestions welcome!

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I wanted to share a video I’ve made at the request of the senior’s community centre where I take exercise classes. I’m new at this technology but I’m excited to be reaching out to support people during this extremely challenging time.

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https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/palliative-care-in-a-pandemic-patients-who-are-not-expected-to-survive-should-not-be-abandoned/

Since the impact of Covid-19 really began to be felt by most Canadians, as we engaged in social isolation and social distancing, as all of our activities (from exercise to meetings to concerts and playdates) have been cancelled, many of us have felt a sense of powerlessness. What can we do to support people who are suffering, when we can’t volunteer (in person), or even visit our elderly relatives and friends? When our grandchildren are off-limits for us, just when our adult children (their parents) could use our help. When the virus seems to lurk all around us, and we have no idea how to protect ourselves and the people we love.

One of the most distressing developments is the spread of Covid-19 in long-term care facilities and retirement residences. Elderly people are dying without their families by their sides. And in the face of a shortage of ventilators and protective equipment for health care workers, triage measures designed to save those most likely to survive the disease mean that elderly, vulnerable people may be left to die.

The article above offers and much-needed call for palliative care for those who are succumbing to the coronavirus. Dr. James Downer urges physicians and other health care measures to provide comfort measures including pain relief for all who could benefit from it.

These are challenging time for all of us. While we might not be on the front-lines of the fight against Covid-19, we are all subject to quarantine, social distancing, not to mention the challenges of parents trying to work at home while keeping their children occupied. We all need to rise to our best selves in these times – to reach out to those who might need help, might be lonely or afraid. I have to believe that there are actions we can take, however small, to make a difference.

More to come…

 

 

 

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