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Posts Tagged ‘dying’

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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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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Dr. Ira Byock is an American leader in hospice palliative care and a passionate advocate for end of life care. His first book, Dying Well, was released 20 years ago and it’s a remarkable book for its time and indeed for any time.

Earlier today, I listened to a discussion with Dr. Byock held in celebration of the book’s 20th anniversary. I wanted to share the link with readers of this blog – I think you’ll find  it as inspirational as I did.

https://iteleseminar.com/100035084?mc_cid=8f0593f849&mc_eid=[UNIQID

 

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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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Dr. Peskin’s first article on the face of dying. I know that when my sister was dying, I felt reassured when I learned what dying might look like and I could better understand the meaning of what I was witnessing. In my hospice experience, most people fall into a deep sleep and die peacefully. Here Dr. Peskin discusses some of the symptoms patients might exhibit.

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A beautiful article on the face of dying – by a physician.  I’ll post her earlier article too.

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Last week, Canadians were shocked and saddened by the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of an Ottawa woman. An op-ed piece written by her husband in the Ottawa Citizen was followed by a radio interview on CBC’s Ottawa Morning. Here are the links to the article and radio story:

http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/adams-what-my-dying-wife-and-i-never-knew-about-palliative-care

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/programs/ottawamorning/palliative-care-1.4194365

The story provides graphic evidence of the shortcomings of palliative care in this country. As the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association has documented, only 17 to 35% of Canadians have access to hospice palliative care. Many factors result in that variation but even at the high point of 35%, the vast majority of Canadians are not receiving the care they need.

Those of us who have experienced palliative care can attest to the dramatic difference it can make in the lives of terminally ill patients and their families. As many experts have argued, palliative care should be available to patients from the onset of a life-threatening illness to help them deal with pain and other symptoms associated with their illness and to provide them with the knowledge needed to make informed choices.

When my sister was dying 20 years ago, there were (to my knowledge) no pain and symptom management teams or facilities we could access to help us with her care. It was our incredible good fortune to find an amazing palliative care nurse (through a visiting nursing service) who guided us through the final days. Her name was Isabelle (“Is a bell necessary on a bicycle?” she used to joke when I had trouble remembering her name) and she followed us from home to hospital when my sister had to be transferred. She patiently explained the significance of Cheyne-Stokes breathing (the “death rattle”) to a very frightened sister (me), offered non-judgmental advice on the choices we faced (e.g. whether oxygen might help), and reminded me that we were doing a great job.

Today, nurses like Isabelle are working in hospitals and residential hospices, and visiting patients in their homes (including long-term care facilities and retirement residences). They ease the journey towards death for both patients and their families. I wish everyone could have an Isabelle (or a Linda, Valerie, Marie, Esther … ) by their side at this difficult time in their lives.

In my view, there is nothing wrong with palliative care that greater commitment, education, financing, and access wouldn’t fix. We need greater emphasis on palliative care in medical schools and nursing programs. We need the federal government to truly commit to and fund an end of life strategy, and we need our provincial governments to ensure access to high quality hospice palliative care for all Canadians, regardless of where they live.

Until then, I fear that more people will experience the needless suffering that the article above describes. Let’s all work together to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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