Category Archives: death and dying

Death and dying is the one subject no one wants to talk about, but we must. We need to think about how we want to live at the end of our lives; what’s important to us; what we value. And then we have to tell our loved ones and our medical team so they will know how to care for us if we cannot speak for ourselves.

What’s Your Big Idea About End-of-Life Care?

The Aspen Institute Health Strategy Group wants to hear from us, by June 1explosion-1246507_640. Specifically, in advance of its Spotlight Health session in June, it wants to know: what is our big idea about end-of-life care?

Of course I couldn’t resist submitting my own two cents’ worth. Here it is:

From my vantage point as a hospice volunteer, seasoned journalist and author of a just-published book about end-of-life issues, my big idea is that at age 40+, hospice in the U.S. is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and needs a radical transformation. Not in its philosophy or system of care, but in how it is paid for. It’s time to start from scratch and design end-of-life benefits based on people’s needs, not on their prognosis.

Although hospice benefits are continuously being tweaked, their broad outlines have not fundamentally changed since its inception. But the very nature of the end-of-life experience now is far different than it had been in the 1970s, when hospice cared mostly for people with cancer. Hospice was not envisioned to address the needs of the frail elderly living with multiple chronic conditions, or the ravages of dementia, whose disease trajectories are certainly far less predictable – and often more complex — than cancer.

Two of the essential elements of the Medicare hospice benefit have come to haunt us. First, it is based on prognosis, that is, it is available for a limited time – six months if the illness runs its normal course. Second, it requires that a person give up any treatment or care that might be deemed “curative.” The choice is stark: cure or care. Either/or, but not both. Hardly surprising, then, that so many people do not even choose hospice care until it is very late in the course of their illness. Too late, in my view, to benefit fully from what this holistic, interdisciplinary and profoundly compassionate care can offer.

I believe we have come to a “tear down this wall” moment in end-of-life care. Tear down the wall that separates palliative care and hospice care; end the tyranny of the six-month cutoff for eligibility. Tear down the wall that separates people who still want to continue treating their illness from those who can accept a natural death. It’s time to develop a health care policy and payment system that embraces concurrent care without costing taxpayers more than the current system that is fragmented, costly, often dysfunctional and unsustainable.

End-of-life care involves so many intertwined issues that must be addressed. Just a few: better education and training for physicians and nurses; better training and better pay for the home health and personal care aides who are on the front lines of caring for the very ill; coordinated care aimed at helping people live as well as possible and in their homes as long as possible, without hospital readmissions; focusing more on culture change and person-centered care in long-term care settings; and more effective ways of providing dementia care.

But public policy changes would have a huge impact on all these issues. How do we get to a better future? In a June 2015 Health Affairs article about what is ahead for Medicare’s next 50 years, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle defined his prescription for success as: good public policy, superior technology and enlightened leadership. It seems to me that this prescription misses one element, which is public engagement. Transforming hospice care will likely not happen without vocal and insistent advocacy from all of us. So it’s time for my fellow aging baby boomers to tap back into our activist genes and start insisting on the kind of care we are all going to need in the not-so-distant future.

The Aspen Institute Health Strategy Group is part of the Health, Medicine and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. Co-chaired by former US Health and Human Services Secretaries and Governors, Kathleen Sebelius and Tommy Thompson, its 24 members are senior leaders across influential sectors: health, business, media, technology and more.

An Artful Way to Teach About Hospice

Not everyone understands what hospice care is, or what hospice care teams – physicians, nurses, home health aides, social workers, chaplains and volunteers – actually do. Not only for people who are very ill, but for their caregivers, too.

So, educating the public about it continues to be critically important. One unique and moving way to do that was organized by the Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization:ArtofHospice a traveling exhibit of artworks created specifically to convey “the compassion and dignity that hospice provides,” LMHPCO executive director Jamey Boudreaux told me.

It took a lot of thought and a fair amount of time to organize the project. A competition was launched in 2013 at the organization’s annual conference, where member hospices were encouraged to find an artist they could work with. But before the artists could apply paint brush to canvas, to get a better sense of the work, they were to go through hospice volunteer training and then spend time shadowing hospice team members. After that, they created a variety of works in different media, including paintings, sculpture, stained glass and photography. In 2014, a group of art critics and artists judged the work of 40 artists, representing 40 member hospice agencies, and selected the 16 finalists that would make up the traveling exhibit.

"A Window Into Hospice," by Tammy Hromadka. Six panels set in an old window frame, each showing the hands of a caregiver.
“A Window Into Hospice,” by Tammy Hromadka. Six panels set in an old window frame, each showing the hands of a caregiver.

Shown here is artist and musician Tammy Hromadka’s “A Window Into Hospice.” Ms.Hromadka volunteers at CHRISTUS Cabrini Hospice’s Grace Home in Alexandria, Louisiana.

As Jamey Boudreaux pointed out, though, “The Art of Hospice” wasn’t just an art exhibit. Over an 18-month period, each of the 10 venues in Mississippi and Louisiana also presented educational courses for physicians, nurses, CNAs, chaplains and volunteers. The public at large also attended sessions devoted to advance care planning. The exhibit stayed in each venue for three or four weeks.

“It raised the level of awareness about hospice in these communities,” Boudreaux said.

Still, LMHPCO found that there was much misinformation or misunderstanding to address about what hospice is all about. Some people were unaware, for example, that hospice is not just “the government coming in to take over for family members,” Boudreaux explained; or that it does not provide 24-hour care; or that there are private agencies – nonprofit and for-profit – that provide this care.

The traveling exhibit involved many logistical challenges and was a one-time event. Boudreaux has talked about the art project with fellow hospice organization executives, but so far none have sought to replicate what LMHPCO did. Most of the artworks have been returned to the artists and the remaining few soon will be returned.

So what does the education committee of LMHPCO do for an encore? The focus will be on providing care for the homeless and for those who are the so-called “un-befriended” — people who do not have caregivers, at the organization’s upcoming conference. I’m eager to see its creative approach to professional and public education after that.

An RN’s View From the Front Lines of Care

When her children were young, Theresa Brown, RN, made a mid-career change: from English professor at Tufts University to nursing, and chose to specialize in medical oncology. We should all be glad she did, because she has chronicled her experiences – and by extension, illuminated some of the most pressing issues and challenges in our health care system – in two excellent books as well as in personal essays in The New York Times. And she does it with clarity, insight, humor and understated eloquence.TheShiftcover

Her voice is important because nursing truly is the heart of care for the ill. No other health professionals spend as much time providing hands-on care for the sick than nurses. Our health care system is increasingly complex, technology-laden and hyper-specialized. So the need for a humanistic perspective from those who are on the front lines has never been more pressing.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Theresa recently, following her book tour for The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives. The book focuses on a day in her life in the oncology ward of a Pittsburgh teaching hospital; she subsequently left that position and currently works as a hospice nurse, visiting people in their homes.

Just a couple of highlights of our conversation:

Theresa told me that she is comfortable in her current role as a home hospice nurse. In fact, she said, one reason she made this switch was that she always likes to learn new things and wanted particularly to learn about how the kind of care provided for patients at home might ultimately be transferred to the hospital setting. Care that offers more dignity and privacy for patients, such as letting patients sleep when they need to; or even wear their own clothes; and making it easier for family, friends and caregivers to visit any time and stay overnight if need be.

“It would be great to go back to a hospital and say, how can we make things better?” she said. “Creating a balance of comfort and quality care.” Even making the decision not to wake people in the middle of the night would be an enormous change, she pointed out.

We also talked about the ideal of the team approach in palliative and hospice care, where physicians and nurses work closely together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. (I’ve interviewed a number of such teams and, like proverbial married couples, they often do finish each other’s sentences.) In a hospital setting, Theresa noted, “communication between physicians and RNs often is not what it should be.”

She’d like to see more inter-professional training focusing on better communications so that “we could view each other as people and understand each other’s roles and responsibilities, and the pressures on each of us.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Theresa will keep learning – and educating us along the way – and that she’ll continue to make a difference in reaching the goal of improving patient care. In the meantime, you can order books, read her columns or join her mailing list at http://www.theresabrownrn.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living Well to the End

Last Comforts

old-people-616718_1280Did you know that November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month? It is, thanks to the efforts of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. It’s a month devoted to broadening public awareness about the outstanding and much-needed care that hospice organizations provide for the very ill and their caregivers.

So I thought I’d do my part. I’m excited to announce the upcoming publication of my book, “Last Comforts: Notes From the Forefront of Late-Life Care.” Why did I write this book and start this blog?

I was drawn to hospice care because its caring and profoundly respectful philosophy and practice offers physical and emotional comfort, support and kindness to the dying and their families. My family experienced that first-hand with my mother’s last illness, a stark contrast five years after my father’s more conventional medicalized, nightmarish last months. So when I had an opportunity to sign on for hospice volunteer training at Holy Name Medical Center, I took it.

“Last Comforts” was born when one nagging question kept arising early in my journey as a hospice volunteer. Why were people coming into hospice care so late in the course of their illness? That question led to many others that rippled out beyond hospice care. Are there better alternatives to conventional skilled nursing home operations? How are physicians and nurses educated about advanced illness and end-of-life care? What are more effective ways of providing dementia care? What are the unique challenges of minority and LGBT people? What is the role of popular media in our death-denying culture? What has been the impact of public policy decisions about palliative and hospice care?

The book is part memoir of lessons learned throughout my experiences with patients and families as a hospice volunteer; part reporting about the remarkable pathfinders and programs in palliative and late-life care; and part call to action. I  encourage readers – particularly her fellow baby boomers — not only to make their wishes and goals clear to friends and family, but also to become advocates for better care in the broader community.

It’s no secret that care at the end of people’s lives right now is mostly fragmented, uncoordinated, often futile and unsustainable. But without question, it can be managed far better for those who are ill as well as for their caregivers. I’m hoping that “Last Comforts” – and this blog — will help shed light on how we can help make that happen.