I’m sure you’re as sad as I am, on hearing the news about Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek’s Stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Can we even imagine Jeopardy with someone else? Well, apparently, Alex can’t either because he’s vowed to “fight this” and “beat it,” and make good on the remaining three years of his contract.
But I’m sad too, at his reliance on the kind of terminology that seems to infect so much writing about serious illness. It’s a battle. No, it’s a war. You want to win it.
Here’s what comes from seeing illness through that lens: if your disease progresses, does that mean you’re not fighting hard enough? If you’re too tired or even grumpy to be positive and put your best foot forward, does that mean the disease is winning the battle? And if your family and friends are urging you on to keep fighting, does that mean you’re disappointing them and that it must be some character weakness in you, if you just don’t want to?
Illness can be unpredictable, wily and complicated. It is not necessarily amenable to your strength of will and your determination to overcome it. Instead, how about dedicating yourself to treatment, doing your best to eat, sleep and live as well as you can for as long as you can?
I would have liked to have heard that from Alex. I also think he has a great opportunity to teach his audience about the nature of serious illness, the shock to the system, the ups and downs, the complications, the satisfaction of good days. And how great would it be if he sent out another message, telling us about his advance directive, and why he made the choices he’s made?
So I wish nothing but successful treatment ahead for Alex, and at least another three years on that contract. But please, no more war metaphors!
Had a wide-ranging conversation about how the media portrays (or doesn’t) elders, serious illness; how people misunderstand palliative and hospice care; and lots more on Barry Lynn’s “Culture Shocks” podcast.
You can listen to our half-hour conversation in the second half of the podcast.
We are now in the midst of the 2019 film awards season, after the kickoff of the always amusing and entertaining Golden Globes. It reminds me that for some time, I’ve longed (in vain) for some kind of media awards event for accurate portrayals about late life. But to whom would those awards go? Alas, few recent films and TV programs might qualify.in late life, frailty, illness, death, loss and grieving don’t translate into blockbuster ticket sales.
But in the past year I’ve found a few standouts, mostly online, that deserve recognition. So in the spirit of the season, let’s call it the “Comfy Awards,” and I’m awarding “Comfys” to:
BoJack Horseman, “Free Churros,” Season 5, Episode 6, on Netflix
I should tell you that I feel that animated films and television programs can have more artistry, humanity and complex storytelling than many conventional live-action films. I’m a huge fan of the Toy Story films, Inside Out and most recently, the brilliant Isle of Dogs, for example. I’m also a huge fan of Bob’s Burgers on TV.
But right now BoJack Horseman is probably my favorite. This Netflix series chronicles the “Hollywoo” (that’s what Hollywood is called here) life of BoJack Horseman, a self-loathing and depressed former TV sitcom star, voiced by the actor Will Arnett. The premise of this world is that a dizzying variety of anthropomorphic creatures interact easily and regularly with human beings. BoJack’s agent, for example, is a cat, Princess Caroline, voiced by Amy Sedaris. The show is by turns hilarious, bitingly satiric, poignant and occasionally moving.
“Free Churros” is a stunning example of the latter. It consists of a 20-minute monologue by BoJack, who is delivering a eulogy to his mother. It is more of a stream-of-consciousness and it artfully suggests why BoJack is as self-involved, troubled and self-destructive as he is.
This is what struck me: Loss and grief are so much more complicated for those who have had strained or stormy relationships with their parents. There’s so much unfinished business. So much anger and resentment on top of the heartache of feeling a void that will never be filled. BoJack clearly had a fraught relationship with his mother (and an even more difficult relationship with his father). This episode beautifully captures all of pain and ambivalence about losing a parent in these circumstances. And still manages to end with a very clever joke.
“What Doctors Know About CPR,” Topic (online magazine)
I think it’s hard to prepare an advance directive if you don’t know precisely what some measures – like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) – really entail. Most of us have a general idea, probably from watching heroic and often extremely successful CPR episodes on our favorite medical TV shows. And using that as our guide, we might reasonably think, why not opt for that? There are plenty of reasons why not, in fact.
But it’s one thing to be told, or to read, about the risks and dangers of CPR; it’s quite another to see a graphic representation of what the process and its more often than not ill effects are. For that, we thank Dr. Nathan Gray, a palliative care physician at Duke University School of Medicine, who wrote and illustrated a graphic piece about the realities of CPR for Topic, an online magazine.
“CPR begins when a heart stops, the last domino to fall on the cascade toward death,” Dr. Gray writes. He illustrates a Code Blue being called, the mechanics and impersonality of the process and the statistics showing how few people actually survive intact.
“Until you witness it in person it can be hard to capture the inhumanity of our medical routine,” he writes. He urges the medical community to not let technology interfere with its humanity.
The piece is essential reading, and undoubtedly I will be using it in future talks about advance care planning.
Time Goes By blog, Ronni Bennett
Ronni Bennett has been writing her blog Time Goes By all about aging, for some time. But I didn’t discover it until several months ago when Kaiser Health News wrote a story about her.
Last fall, Bennett’s doctors told her that her pancreatic cancer had metastasized to her lungs and her peritoneum (which lines the cavity of the abdomen) and that there were treatment options but no cure for her condition. Now, if I’d been given this news, my first inclination would probably have been to hide under the covers in bed. Bennett’s inclination, though, was to write about it. And to keep writing, because for her that was a way of better understanding herself. Her hope was to approach the last chapter of her life “alert, aware and lucid,” she said.
“There’s very little about dying from the point of view of someone who’s living that experience,” she told Kaiser Health News. “This is one of the very big deals of aging and, absolutely, I’ll keep writing about this as long as I want to or can.”
Reading Bennett is, in fact, like having a great talk with a good friend. She is great company, amusing, touching and honest above all. About what she calls her terrors. About the ridiculous moments (she needs a new heater and thinks, Really? Now?) and the transcendent moments (a carefully guided psilocybin trip that she says has given her a greater sense about life and death). She has a large, avid readership and her honesty has made it possible for readers to share their stories, too. She also posts “The Alex and Ronni Show” — videos of her Skyped conversations with her ex-husband.
Most recently, she wrote: “However short or long my remaining days may be, it is a great gift I have received, knowing my death is near. It led to what I think is the most important question in the circumstance: what do you want to do with the time that remains?”
That’s a question we all need to think about. So, I’m awarding a “Comfy” to Ronni Bennett for the great service she is doing for all of us.
Do you have any suggestions for “Comfy” awards? I’d love to hear about them!
Hawaii has become the latest state to enable medical aid-in-dying, and public opinion has been shifting more in favor of it in the past couple of years. It’s still an enormously controversial subject and too often advocates on both the “pro” and “con” side shed more heat than light on it. I wrote this blog piece for http://sixtyandme.com in hopes of providing a little light.
Spoiler alert: I am opposed to medical aid-in-dying. Not for religious reasons, or because it violates the medical principle of “do no harm” or even because of fear of the “slippery slope” that would harm the most vulnerable among us.
In short, it seems to me that this evolution is more of a striking and continuing indication of the sorry state of end-of-life care currently, than it is a rational health care solution for those suffering terminal illnesses.
It’s such a topsy-turvy world right now that if you’re like me, it might take more than a little time spent viewing cat and puppy videos to elevate your mood. So I’m glad to share the story of Embodied Labs.
When I think about the future of health and wellness care for elders, one looming issue is how we can attract a broad and well-trained workforce to understand and help us through a gauntlet of serious illnesses or chronic conditions. So it is enormously heartening to learn about a group of young professionals who have dedicated themselves and their business to this work.
If compassion and kindness are rooted in the ability to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes,” Embodied Labs – which didn’t exist until 2016 — gives that dictum the ultimate technological boost. In short, it sits at the intersection of health care training and virtual reality storytelling.
Embodied Labs is a for-profit corporation, but it is very mission driven, according to Erin Washington, co-founder and head of customer experience. “We’re helping to build the world we’d like to see when we’re older,” she told me, adding that “we don’t consider ourselves a VR [virtual reality] company. We’re using VR because it’s the best solution to achieving the outcomes we’re aiming for.”
Washington’s professional background is in curriculum development. Carrie Shaw, CEO and founder, got her Master’s degree in biomedical visualization (which was once called medical illustration) in 2016. But it was their experience as family caregivers that provided the impetus for creating Embodied Labs.
Shaw tells the story about how she became a caregiver for her mother, diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, and who also struggled with macular degeneration. She created a tool – a simple pair of eyeglasses with patches in two different places – to give her mother’s aides a sense of what it was like to see the world from her mother’s perspective. What if you could use science, storytelling and virtual reality to convey the experience of an aging person? Would that help health care providers, be they professionals, direct care workers or family members, become more effective and better at communicating, in their caregiving efforts?
Embodied Labs uses film combined with interactivity that literally enables a person to walk in the shoes of a person with serious health issues. So far there are three “labs” available to the company’s subscribers: “Alfred,” a 74-year-old African-American man who suffers from macular degeneration and hearing loss; “Beatriz,” a middle-aged Latina woman who has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease; and “Clay,” a 66-year-old veteran who has been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and faces end-of-life issues and participates in hospice care.
Voice interaction is one element in the Beatriz Alzheimer’s lab. At one point, a person “embodying” Beatriz is asked to read a few sentences; but the words come out garbled and make little sense. It conveys what it might feel like to try to communicate but to be unable to express what you mean.
For the Clay end-of-life lab, Washington’s research included spending two days in a hospice facility, shadowing members of the hospice team. The lab’s credits list 75 people, including actors, those who worked in production, post production and subject matter experts.
Creating a lab is a research and labor-intensive process. Once a topic is decided upon, staff members talk to subject matter experts as well as family members, then decide on learning outcomes they want to achieve. All of that goes into script writing. Then the film is produced.
The Alfred lab, the company’s first, was created by an interdisciplinary team, with content experts from the University of Illinois Chicago, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, Wake Forest School of Medicine and North Carolina School of the Arts, with representative input from students and experts in the fields ranging from biomedical visualization to geriatrics and health informatics systems. (A white paper detailing the impact of the lab on 200 second-year medical students at the University of Illinois-Chicago in October 2016 is available on the company’s website.)
At first, the company’s subscribers were mostly in academia. But now it has long term care and home health care companies on board. They’re also in talks with nonprofit organizations and with individuals who do corporate training; public libraries and Alzheimer’s groups represent other potential subscribers.
Looking ahead, Washington believes that in 2019 virtual reality will be more available and affordable for consumers, which could be a boon for family caregivers. And while Embodied Labs is focused on aging issues now, the company is looking at experiences of other vulnerable populations too.
“We try to explore difficult subjects, not skills-based training,” Washington said.
So far, the company’s labs have focused on what happens to a person in his or her home setting. The next lab will focus on the transition from living at home to a skilled nursing facility. It will likely include such elements as difficult conversations, the family dynamic, how long-term care can meet a need, what’s different about an institutional setting.
Washington told me that “I would have laughed three years ago if someone had said you’d be starting a company.”
Here’s my early Valentine’s Day gift to you! It’s a chance to win a FREE Kindle version of my book, “Last Comforts: Notes from the Forefront of Late Life Care.”
Enter before Feb. 14 and you could be among the 20 winners of this award-winning book about educating ourselves and our loved ones about the best possible care in our later years, to avoid medical crises down the road. It’s a book with a lot of heart and a lot of practical guidance, too!
The giveaway will only last from Feb. 1 to Feb. 14, so enter now. And if you already have the book, be sure to tell your friends!
We’re in the midst of holiday season, and for many of us that means family events, gatherings with our friends and other celebrations. And of course it means lots of eating. An abundance of goodies that are sweet, savory and everything in between. That’s no surprise, considering that in our culture, food is one of our basic expressions of love. It’s one way we nurture each other and connect with each other. It’s comfort. A chef I met last year summed it up so clearly. “All I ever wanted to do,” he said, “was to feed people and make them happy.”
For those who are nearing the ends of their lives, though, food not only becomes less and less of a pleasure but also less and less necessary. That’s a hard concept to wrap your head around and even harder to confront when you see this happening to someone you love. A person’s lack of appetite is a powerful and unwelcome symbol of decline, and a harbinger of the loss we will soon experience. If only Mom or Dad would eat, you might think, they could get some strength back, feel better and slow the progression of illness.
As a result, there is a giant misconception that the dying suffer terribly if they don’t eat or drink anything; that they will die of starvation or dehydration. Further, that people responsible for their care are cruel and inhumane if they do not feed the ill, or at least give them fluids. But when a person who is terminally ill stops eating, he or she cannot process food and fluids. Forcing the person to eat does not help that person to live longer, feel better, feel stronger, or be able to do more.
When a man I’d been visiting for a several weeks in a nursing home recently reached that point, his sister poignantly asked me, “Can’t we get them [the nursing home] to give him a feeding tube?” Of course she didn’t want to see her brother steadily becoming weaker and weaker. Of course she didn’t want to lose him. She believed that he would get some strength back if only he would eat more. But it wasn’t lack of nutrition that was causing his decline; it was the cancer.
Her brother’s advance care directive, in fact, called for no artificial nutrition. The fact is, at that point artificial nutrition and/or hydration makes people feel bloated, nauseated, and/or develop diarrhea. It does not relieve suffering. Here’s what the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine has to say: “For patients near the end of life, artificial nutrition and hydration is unlikely to prolong life and can potentially lead to medical complications and increase suffering.”
It’s better, the experts say, to offer a little food or something to drink, and if your loved one wants it, even a minimal amount, fine. If not, don’t force it. There are other ways to continue to nourish your loved one, if food and fluids are no longer an option. A light, soothing massage. Playing favorite music. Or just sitting quietly, holding hands, offering your presence and your love.
Addressing Nutrition in Advance Directives
It’s important to address the issue of nutrition in your advance care directive. It may not be enough just to say “yes” or “no” to artificial nutrition and hydration, though. Recently I came across a useful document about this, published by End of Life Washington. It addresses the issue of feeding-by-hand, which could be an issue in long-term care facilities caring for people with advanced illness and/or dementia. (And it certainly underscores the importance of documenting the advance care goals and preferences of people with dementia early in their diagnosis.) You can read the full document here.
At the heart of it, the document states, “If I accept food and drink (comfort feeding) when they’re offered to me, I want them. I request that oral food and fluids be stopped if, because of dementia, any of the following conditions occur:
I appear to be indifferent to being fed.
I no longer appear to desire to eat or drink.
I do not willingly open my mouth
I turn my head away or try to avoid being fed or given fluids in any other way.
I spit out food or fluids.
I begin a pattern of coughing, gagging or choking on or aspirating (inhaling) food or fluids.
The negative medical consequences of symptoms of continued feeding and drinking, as determined by a qualified medical provider, outweigh the benefits.”
This document does not replace your advance care directive, but it is a supplement to it. This organization also has a detailed general advance care directive as well as an advance care directive for those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia available on its website. They’re worth a look.
In the meantime, I wish you a bountiful and joyful holiday season, filled with precious times with everyone you love.
I recently came across this short poem on Twitter; it was written by a 99-year-old woman, a former nurse herself. I thought it was so wonderful that I’ve now used it several times to introduce my talks about late-life care and advance care planning. Since people have been requesting copies, I thought I’d share it here. What do you think?
Happy Halloween, boys and ghouls! We’re surrounded by all things spooky and macabre right now, so it seems like a good time to ask: what scares you?
Truth be told, I found these creepy creatures shown here pretty scary when I saw them at the otherwise great Portland Art Museum in Oregon. Something about their fierceness and intent. But I’ll tell you what scares me more. It’s the idea of living-but-not-living; that is, having to rely on a ventilator, and artificial feeding, to keep me among the “living” if I’m otherwise close to dying. Like being in suspended animation.
It’s one thing to consider life-prolonging treatments in the abstract; even checking the boxes on an advance care directive or a POLST form can seem like an abstract exercise too. But an outstanding article by Sara Manning Peskin, MD, recently brought home to me once again the grim specifics of these treatments and tore away anything abstract in considering them.
Why is it so important to understand this on a gut level, rather than as a cerebral exercise? Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of groups about advance care planning. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that for many people, it’s hard to think about what they might want, or not want, because they don’t understand the realities of what’s involved with various life-prolonging treatments. So I try to explain some of the highlights, with the important caveat that I’m not a doctor or an advanced practice nurse. Even so, I’m sure for many these are still abstract ideas.
That’s where Dr. Peskin’s article comes in. She writes about meeting a 56-year-old woman she calls Geraldine, and her family, in the hospital three weeks after Geraldine had suffered a heart attack. Geraldine was on a breathing tube.
“We can place a long-term breathing tube in her neck and a feeding tube in her stomach,” she told the family, “but there are no cases in the medical literature of someone like her living independently again. The best we could hope for is a life of near-complete dependence.”
Her family decided that, because Geraldine was stubborn and exceptional in life – a fighter, they called her — they believed she would be exceptional in beating her prognosis too.
“For Geraldine’s family, the immediate fear of watching her die outweighed the unfamiliar pain of sustaining her on machines and watching her disappear in a long-term care facility,” Dr. Peskin writes. And so the breathing tube was placed in her neck, and the feeding tube in her stomach.
But, as Dr. Peskin explains, “immobility leads to complications: infection, blood clots and bedsores. Where tubes are inserted, bacteria can enter. Being immobile also put Geraldine at risk for pneumonia and urinary tract infections. “Like mosquitoes in standing water, infections proliferate when the body is still,” Dr. Peskin points out.
Blood clots resulted not only from immobility but also from Geraldine’s body having been inflamed and torn from the heart attack. Circulation slowed. “Pools of static blood dried into a thick paste in her blood vessels,” the doctor says.
A bedsore developed. As Dr. Peskin explains, if a bedsore progresses, first the skin becomes red, then its outer layer breaks down, then the inner layer does. Then, bone, muscles and tendons are exposed. This can happen in a matter of days.
But two months after the heart attack, Geraldine was stable enough to leave the hospital’s ICU and was transferred to a long-term care facility. She was in a persistent vegetative state, which means she did not respond to external stimuli.
The family still hoped that there would be a miraculous turnaround. But there wasn’t any miracle. Geraldine died of sepsis, a life-threatening complication of an infection, after four months of care.
A coda to the story: While Geraldine was still in the ICU, Dr. Peskin reports, another doctor asked if the family of another patient in that ICU could visit Geraldine to see what prolonged dying looked like. The family agreed; the visiting family subsequently chose hospice care for their loved one.
When you think about advance care planning, then, think about Geraldine. I think it’s also helpful to think not only about what you don’t want, but what you do want. It’s still an exercise, to be sure, because so often we truly do not control our end-of-life circumstances. But it’s good to have an ideal in mind.
(In case you’re wondering, those spooky creatures pictured here are Tupilak figures exhibited at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. These were credited to an Inuit artist, circa 1960. In Greenlandic Inuit culture, these figures were made by shamans to be avenging monsters. They’d be placed into the sea to seek and destroy a specific enemy.)
Okay, maybe you’re not asking yourself that question. Then again, maybe you don’t have to wait another couple of weeks to start having conversations with those closest to you about some serious subjects. Subjects like, what kind of care would be best for me if Ihad a serious illness? How do I feel about treatments and interventions like mechanical ventilation, feeding tubes and CPR?
It’s tough to start these conversations, of course, which is one reason why the majority of adults don’t do it. Or prepare advance care directives. But a Philadelphia-based company called Common Practice has come up with a way to help you with this, that’s clever, effective and fun. It’s a game you can play with two to five players, called “Hello,” and it’s available on the company’s website for $24.95. And, no, I don’t have any connection or interest in this company.
I had a chance to speak with Nick Jehlen, a founding partner of the company and lead designer of the game. What piqued my interest was this: underpinning what could be seen on first blush as a lighthearted approach to a weighty subject was in fact the result of a thoughtful and deliberative process of research, design and feedback.
Here’s how the game works. Each player gets a question booklet with 32 questions (which you keep after you finish playing), and a number of “thank you” chips to give to other players if they say something you find particularly touching, helpful or insightful. You decide how to play: whether to limit the number of questions, or put a time limit on play. There are no wrong answers and really, no winners or losers. As the game designers point out, the most important rule is to listen.
Some sample questions:
In order to provide you with the best care possible, what three nonmedical facts should your doctor know about you?
Who haven’t you talked to in more than six months that you would want to before you died?
If you needed help going to the bathroom today, who is the first person you’d ask to help you? Who would you never be able to ask?
What music do you want to be listening to on your last day alive?
What activities make you lose track of time?
Write your own epitaph in five words or less.
One of the keys to the game’s effectiveness is that everyone has to answer the questions, so there’s a sense of sharing and no one (such as a person confronting a serious and/or life-limiting illness) is being “singled out” in the conversation.
“We wanted to create a sense of safety,” Jehlen said, noting that he has played the game “hundreds of times and my answers change. [The game] doesn’t force you into a corner. You can play it every year and see how you evolve.” He’s played it with his own parents, too, and said that they found it to be maybe a bit strange at first, but challenging and fun.
How the Game Evolved
Prior to developing the game, Common Practice’s business had revolved around designing tools to help people to communicate better in order to achieve greater workplace productivity and purpose. When the founders started thinking about what ultimately became “Hello,” they spoke at length with hospice nurses, to learn more about what helps people to be resilient. One insight: families who had actually talked about death and dying were able to care for loved ones better than those who hadn’t.
They entered their game, then known as “My Gift of Grace,” in a design challenge run by the California Healthcare Coalition and were one of the winners. When they realized what an important project it was, and that it was the most meaningful work they had done, they decided to make it the focus of their business, Jehlen told me.
They did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, and 440 people contributed. In devising the questions that would be part of the game, they queried their contributors for suggestions and reactions to sample questions. They were most interested in questions that generated more than a paragraph to answer. In the end, half of the questions in the game were devised by Common Practice; the other half came from backers.
About a year ago, they changed the name to “Hello,” because some of the feedback was that the name had religious overtones which made some feel left out.
Common Practice also makes “event kits” of the game available to groups of 25 to 50 people in health care settings, including hospitals and hospice agencies. It runs training and workshops for health care staff, aiming to encourage participants to feel more comfortable asking questions of their patients that are more, well, patient-centered.
How effective is this game? One measure: Research conducted at Penn State’s College of Medicine has shown that roughly three-quarters of the number of people who play the game subsequently go on to take some kind of advance care planning action, including creating an advance care directive.
Or, consider the response by health care professionals. After Nick Jehlen made a presentation about the game at the Mayo Clinic’s Transform conference in 2015, he invited attendees to play the game later on that afternoon. 150 people took him up on that offer.