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We live in a culture that places a tremendous value on multi-tasking. Books, articles online, in magazines, and in business sections of newspapers extol the virtue of being able to focus on multiple tasks at the same time. This goes well with the “cult of busyness” that seems to have overtaken the Western world. Dare to ask a colleague how they’re doing as they race past you down the hallway, and they’re likely to shake their head and respond, “I’m so busy.” Indeed, busyness seems to be synonymous with “important” in the modern lexicon.

For the most part, these values do not hold sway in a hospice. At the end of life, everything slows down, and staff, volunteers, and family members tend to mirror the pace of each resident’s dying process. As I’ve written on this blog before, this focus on being fully present is one of the aspects I find most beneficial at hospice. I cannot properly be of service to residents and their families if my mind is racing with a million details and tasks.

Nonetheless, sometimes busyness does seem to intrude even in the sacred space of the hospice. I’m not talking about the genuine emergencies which do sometimes occur. I’m referring to the tendency of people sometimes to assume that if you do not appear to be “busy,” you are not actually doing anything and are therefore ready to be interrupted.

A recent hospice shift provides graphic evidence of the perils of interruptions.

Though not all the beds were full that day, there was no shortage of tasks to occupy my time. A bed to be made up, dishes to rinse and put in the dishwasher, lunches to make, coffee to brew. You get the idea.

About three quarters of the way through my shift, a staff member popped into the volunteer room where I was writing notes in the volunteer communication book. “Room 4 is ready for you to take her order.”

I quickly made my way to Room 4, where I found a woman wrapped in a quilt, sitting at ease in a large Lazy-boy chair.

“I hear you’d like some food!” I began, perching on the edge of her bed.

Immediately the bed alarm began screeching, alerted to movement by my weight.

“Oops,” I said, jumping up and pressed the reset button on the alarm. “What would you like?”

“What do you have?”

“Well, it looks like you had chicken shepherd’s pie the other day. Would you like that again?”

“No, I had that yesterday. What else do you have?”

“I could make you an egg salad sandwich.”

“With dressing?”

“Of course! White bread?”

“Yes, just one slice.”

“Coming right up,” I said, happy to have arrived at an item that appealed to her.

En route to the kitchen, a staff member called out, “The family in room 2 needs a tour.”

“Sure,” I said. “Right after I finish this.”

The kitchen was a busy place when I entered. A family member was heating up some stew for his lunch. “Do you have something I can store the rest of this in?”

“Why don’t you heat it up in this bowl and save the rest in the original container?” I suggested. “And I just made some fresh coffee if you’re interested.” I reached into the drawer to grab him a cup.

When another family member joined us, I offered her a cup of tea, pointing out the range of choices Tim Horton’s has generously donated to us.

“OK,” I counseled myself, “time to make Mary’s lunch.”

I checked the freezer for a small container of shepherd’s pie, removed the lid and popped it in the microwave. I had a nagging feeling there was something else she wanted, but carrots were the only thing that popped into my mind and I knew she’d rejected that.

When the microwave beeped, I took out the bubbling container and transferred it to a bowl. I added the cup of very weak tea she’d ordered (“Just put the bag in and take it right out again!”) and placed it on the tray. I felt proud of my ability to focus on the task at hand in the midst of competing demands!

When I presented the tray to Mary, she looked at me with horror.

“I asked for an egg salad sandwich,” she said.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that. I am so sorry.” I kept repeating that over and over again. “I’ve never done that in my life. I am so dumb.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she commanded, hoping for an end to my litany of self-judgment.  “Just make me an egg salad sandwich.”

To make sure I wouldn’t forget her order again, I wrote “egg s. 1 w. bread” on my palm.

When I returned with her order a few minutes later, she gave me a look of approval. I waited until she’d taken her first bite and pronounced it “just what I wanted,” before heading off to my next assignment.

I’d like to think I’ll never make that mistake again but I know there’s a good chance I will (though not the very same one, I hope!).  I know that we are all subject to information overload. I hope I will remember to  ask someone if they are busy before I interrupt them. And I hope that my colleagues at hospice will do the same. That way perhaps we can all remain in the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m excited to see so many visitors to the hospice volunteering blog this week. I’m grateful to Hospice Care Ottawa for including the blog in their monthly newsletter for volunteers and staff. I hope that many readers will choose to follow the blog – that’s the easiest way to ensure that you keep receiving it on a regular basis. I don’t post a great deal – at most once a week, but often less, as life carries me away to other pursuits. There’s a button on the page that says “follow‘ – just click on that, give your email address, and you’ll get a message each time I post.

I have another reason to thank Hospice Care Ottawa – they graciously hosted the latest Death Cafe at the May Court Hospice on Monday. We had a great turnout – and from the buzz in the room I could tell that people were engaged in lively conversation. I know I had a great time with the three other people at my table!

I’ll keep you posted on other upcoming activities – here in Ottawa and elsewhere. In the meantime, feel free to share this blog, and to read the archived posts on this site. Thank  you!

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http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/08/11/542607941/nearly-1-in-5-hospice-patients-discharged-while-still-alive

When I first saw the headline for this NPR story, I thought it was a good news story! One in five patients being discharged from hospice! That’s amazing!

But when I dug into the article, I realized how wrong I was. You see, in the US, most hospice operate on a for-profit basis. They are looking for ways to improve the bottom line by moving out patients who might need costly medical procedures – re-admitting them after they’ve been treated. As well, there’s evidence to suggest that they may be over-admitting patients who might not be within 6 months of death, thereby insuring that they fill all their beds. This doesn’t sound like good news to me!

Hospices in the United States began much like those in Canada – through the pioneering efforts of people following the example of Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of St. Christopher’s Hospice in London.  Once Medicare began to pay for the “hospice benefit,” for-profit enterprises (including venture capitalists) began purchasing and establishing hospices. The result of this is described in the attached article.

We are not perfect here in Canada – hospices are not adequately funded by Medicare and millions of dollars must be raised by each not-for-profit hospice just to survive. Costs are kept down by the use of thousands upon thousands of volunteers – providing enormous savings in staff salaries and invaluable services of all kind. As many people have noted, volunteers are the heart and soul of hospice and the benefits we provide are immeasurable.

Volunteers are essential to American hospices as well, of course. In fact, to receive funding through the hospice benefit program, at least 5% of staffing costs must be provided by volunteers. That’s a huge incentive to organizations to attract and retain volunteers.

Not all hospices in the U.S. operate on a for-profit basis. And I’m sure that some of the for-profit hospices provide excellent, caring services for people at the end of their lives. Nonetheless, I’m glad that in Canada, so far, we’ve maintained the non-profit basis for hospice services established by the founders of the hospice palliative care movement.

 

 

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When I first started volunteering in a residential hospice 15 years ago, most people I encountered had never even heard of a hospice. When I told them it was a place that provided end of life care for dying patients and their families, they looked at me with a strange combination of horror and disbelief.

“You must be a saint!” people would say, stepping back slightly to avoid the glare from my halo. “I could NEVER do what you do,” they would add, though they actually had no idea what I did.

“Don’t you find it depressing?” was their closing question, perhaps their way of explaining why they could never take my place.

“Actually, it’s the most hopeful part of my week,” I would say, ready to offer an explanation to the questions that never came.

Fifteen years later, people are still a little surprised when I say I volunteer in a hospice. But instead of distancing themselves by putting me on a saintly pedestal, more often than not they ask me what exactly what a hospice volunteer does. They listen with interest as I describe a typical shift, which can involve everything from helping to give a bed bath to making poached eggs and toast, brewing pots of Tim Horton’s coffee, and listening to a grieving family member anticipating the loss of her sister.

Our work is both hands-on and open-hearted, I explain. I’m a short-order chief cook and bottle washer, a hand holder, and a singer of hymns. I’m a listener and a tour guide, a companion, and a witness. And I never know which among those roles I’ll play on any given day.

More often than not, people listen intently as I explain the nature of our work. While some still assure me that they could never do what I do, many say they might think of doing something like this, once they have the time.

I like to think that my being a hospice volunteer – and talking and writing about my work – is playing a small part in opening up discussions about death and dying in my community and beyond. Certainly I encounter more and more like-minded people on Facebook, at community gatherings, even at the movies. I believe that we are opening up essential conversations about how we want to live our lives and how we would like to approach our deaths.

As always, I’d love to hear what readers think about my writing here – I hope if you find it meaningful, you’ll share this blog with others, through your social media connections and elsewhere. I hope you’ll join me in these essential conversations about living and dying.

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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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Before I start this post, I want to share with you an amazing podcast from the BBC that I came across recently. Here’s the link:

We need to talk about death

You can listen to it on your computer, or download the podcast and keep up with all the episodes as they are posted. There are two at the moment and they are truly wonderful. The instigator and narrator is a wonderful British woman in her 80s. She’s gathered a small panel of “experts” – people who have thought a great deal about death during their lives. The first episode talks about the importance of facing our fears of death and dying. The second focusses on pain. I wish I could sit down with all of you and listen to it together – and then talk about our own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. We seem to have so few places to talk about such things.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t posted in nearly two months. I could tell you that I’ve been busy, that life’s gotten in the way, that I’ve been working hard on other things, and, while all that would be true, it’s not the real reason I’ve been silent.

The real reason is because I’ve been struggling to find the meaning in the work I am doing as a hospice volunteer. It’s not that I’ve lost the calling. That’s something I’ve felt since I first walked into the hospice where I still volunteer. It’s something I’ve known since my sister told me “You’re going to be an expert at this by the time you’re done with me,” shortly before she died. While I certainly didn’t want to learn how to be with dying from my sister, she was, as always, an excellent teacher.

I feel honoured to be able to help dying people and their families. I treasure the conversations we have had over the past 15 years – and I hold deep within my heart the memory of the people with whom I’ve sat as they took their last breath.

But increasingly – slowly over time and, of late, more frequently – I’ve found myself confronted with more and more rules and restrictions, tasks and prohibitions. Seldom do I seem to have the time to sit with someone who is dying. Or to retreat to the sun room to have a chat with a family member who is having a hard time. Instead, I’m in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher (or waiting for it to be finished!), rushing to answer the phone or fix someone’s lunch.

I have never minded the quotidian tasks that are part and parcel of volunteering – I’ve become quite the expert at making jello, grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs (though not poached, after all these years). Those things have been part and parcel of the services we do. My struggle has been that we are faced with an increasing number of rules about how things must be done and what we must do to the point where I wonder if “being with dying” is actually part of our “job.”

Perhaps you’ll think I’m complaining – or being unrealistic about the degree to which organizations must change when they advance from their “pioneering phase.” But when I listen to people talk as they do on the BBC program mentioned above, I am reminded once again of the reason why I became a hospice volunteer – and I mourn what seems lost in the process of  growing, consolidating, and institutionalizing.

From my casual conversations during shift changes and with friends, I know I’m not alone in these feelings. I wonder if any of you readers out there might feel the same.

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An article I wrote was just published on a wonderful site called KevinMD. Here’s the link:

http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2016/09/helping-hospice-present-much-important-busy.html

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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