Tag Archives: patient education

Planning Ahead in the Time of Covid-19

One way the coronavirus pandemic has upended what we think of as normal life is how we think about mortality.

How? First, while there’s still so much we don’t know about the virus, what’s clear is that it can, with startling rapidity, do fatal damage even to otherwise-healthy people. It might be a matter of just days or weeks between the time a person first experiences symptoms and the time that person becomes critically ill.

Second, the very sick patients in assisted living, skilled nursing facilities, or in hospital intensive care units must bear the burden of illness alone; visits from loved ones are prohibited. That means a loss of the comfort of being together through a harrowing ordeal.

Third, patients on ventilators must be sedated, and are unable to speak to their loved ones. So there’s no way to have any kind of conversations, much less talks about goals of medical care. Nor can nurses or doctors do what palliative care and hospice physicians have always done best, which is to listen to patients about their lives, their hopes and fears, and to assure them with their very presence that the patients are well cared for.

Fourth, because we cannot gather in groups, we cannot depend on the comfort of family and friends and the time-honored rituals of grieving at funerals or memorial services. Much has been written about the concept of complicated grief, and this pandemic will certainly require a whole new chapter.

This is the horrifying reality that we see and read about, day after day. So it seems to me that this National Healthcare Decisions Day takes on more of a sense of immediacy than it may have in the past. That is, now is the time to think about what kind of care we’d want if we could not speak for ourselves; discuss it with family; get it in writing; and designate a health care proxy.

Of course, it is still true that it’s impossible to decide what kind of treatment you’d want, or not want, if you don’t understand what these treatments entail.

Let’s talk about ventilation, as an example. The best article I’ve read about the why’s and how’s of ventilation is one by Daniela Lamas, MD, a critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and I urge you to read it.

Before Covid-19, my advance care plan said “no thanks” to it. But it seems key to saving the lives of some extremely ill Covid-19 patients and I would not refuse it if I had the virus.

What Dr. Lamas does not mention, though, is that typical time on the ventilator has been longer, on average (up to two weeks or even more) for Covid-19 patients than it has been in conventional uses. That in itself can lead to possible lung damage as well as emotional and psychological issues for recovering patients. Nor does she mention the sad fact that being on a ventilator does not guarantee survival. While it’s still too early to say what percentage of Covid-19 patients do survive ventilation, a large study on that, done by the Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre in London, found that just 33 out of 98 ventilated patients in the U.K were discharged alive.

So there’s plenty to think about on this National Healthcare Decisions Day. But, hey, we’re home, we’ve got some time on our hands. Pour yourself a glass of wine, or something stronger, and talk it over. And if you need a little guidance getting started, here’s a great resource.

Having ‘The Talk’ With Mom and Dad

Editor’s note: Did you know that April 16th is National Health Care Decisions Day? Of course, the pandemic has made us all just that much more aware of our mortality, so it’s an excellent time to think about the kind of care we’d want if we couldn’t speak for ourselves. Or: to learn what our parents would want. Not an easy talk to have, certainly! This guest blog, by systems engineer William Donaldson, explains how he had multiple such conversations with his parents — and why they proved so valuable. He’s also writing a book about it, available this summer, “Estimated Time of Departure: How I Talked to My Parents to Death: A Love Story.”

For reasons I still do not fully understand, I wanted to know what my parents wanted for their end of life. What I learned in shepherding my parents on their journeys is that the discussions, while hard and sad, are also incredibly liberating and rewarding. The feeling of control and certainty were ironically comforting since I was certain I was going to be losing my parents. But knowing precisely what each of my parents wanted and sharing that with my siblings long before we needed to face the event became a wonderful, loving gift. When the time came (Dad died in August 2009 and Mom died in March 2011) there were no questions or regrets; we all knew exactly what needed to be done.

When I first started pressing the issue, probably 10-12 years before the events, my parents were dismissive of the need. As time moved on, they became evasive and would change the subject. Finally, after many aborted attempts, we broke through and started to talk in earnest. But why did it take so long?

Here is why I believe they resisted. My parents were fiercely independent and had a work ethic that required one to “buck up” and fight through whatever the issue they were facing. They did not want to be reliant on or a burden to anyone. Finally, I think they didn’t want to burden their children, or anyone else, with their issues. They were very private, and they did not wish to have anyone intruding into their space. I believe all these feelings are normal and caused avoidance and deflection. Only when it became apparent that some things were going to have to change due to physical limitations, and when my siblings and I told my parents that we needed to know how the movie ended, that we began to have the productive end of life discussions.

My parents had raised five children and, while we had our differences and spats, we all loved one another and got along well. We talked and visited often. As my parents aged, they named me and my brother, Alec, executors of their estate. My parents did all the right things concerning wills, powers-of-attorney, DNRs, and all the legal, rational, and biological decisions. In that regard, we were blessed.

However, as their lives wound down, it became clear to me that the emotional and biographical elements of their end of life were still unknown to us. As I was living in the same town, I had access to my parents, and I took it upon myself to explore those aspects of their end of life. I kept my brothers and sister informed at every step, and they helped encourage my parents to open up about their wishes. I believe my parents needed to hear from all of us that we were okay with them having these discussions. We all became very philosophical that we had to have these discussions. This openness and resolve paved the way for genuinely heartfelt, loving, liberating discussions.

These hard, emotional discussions paid off handsomely at my parents’ end of life. When those times came, there were no surprises. None of us had to wonder what our parents wanted. Our parents knew that we were comfortable with the inevitability. Both of my parents were able to identify the right time and circumstance for their deaths. They were ready to accept hospice services, and we all had beautiful long, loving goodbyes, without regret for what hadn’t been said. They both died peacefully. I believe their knowing that they had prepared themselves and their children for the inevitability changed everyone’s experience for the better.

So, don’t wait until it is too late. Don’t miss the opportunity to take control of this event. Have the discussions you need to have. Make these declarations ahead of time. You can do it.

Here are some thoughts from my siblings and my journey to help with yours.

Don’t wait – Since death is inevitable, why not talk about what you think and feel about that inevitability?
Talk early – Dealing with these discussions at the last minute, during highly stressful episodes, does not help matters at all. As morbid as it sounds, the best time to have these discussions is when you feel the most alive. Being reasonably sure the specter of death is some time off relieves some of the stress the topic inevitably brings.
Talk often – People can change their minds. Don’t feel pressured only to talk once and resolve all the issues.
Write it down – Whatever decisions you come to, as parent or child of parents, write them down.
Share it – Share these thoughts with everyone who needs to know.

My experience of shepherding my parents to the end of their lives turned out to be one of the most loving and rewarding chapters in my life. I hope hearing that will give you the courage to have these most important conversations.

Looking Ahead with Resilience & Purpose

Having recently celebrated a birthday — not a “big” one, but big enough, thanks — I felt in need of a little inspiration. And found it in a documentary on DVD called “Lives Well Lived.” The filmmaker interviewed some 40 people, in their 70s through 100, about their lives, about what gives their lives meaning, and what advice they might have for younger people.

Besides being a great antidote to the often-stereotypical portrayals of older adults in the media, it’s also an excellent history lesson from a variety of vantage points. Lots of food for thought, for all generations.

I wrote about it for SixtyandMe.com. Here’s the link.

For the Skills We Never Learned in School

Did you know that today 20 million family caregivers regularly perform a range of tasks for family members or friends? That’s according to AARP. The fact is, many of us are – or will become – caregivers, and that most of us have never been trained to do some of the often complex tasks that will be needed.

Fortunately, there’s more and more online help available to caregivers. So, in honor of National Family Caregivers Month, here’s my latest blog post for Sixty and Me about some of the instructional videos available now:

‘Elderhood’: A Necessary Look at Embracing Aging in All its Stages

I wonder if Madonna, 60, thinks of herself as old.

I’m guessing probably not, but maybe she should. Think of how much she might contribute to the discussion about what it means to age, to grow older well, and how we can facilitate that for all of us, not just for a privileged few.

This thought might never have crossed my mind except for having read Louise Aronson’s extraordinary new book, “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life,” and having the opportunity to interview her about it. Aronson is a geriatrician and professor of geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco.

In the book, an amalgam of facts, patient stories, tales of Aronson’s own education and medical experience — as well as references to history, anthropology, literature and scientific studies — combine to shine a light on the necessity to rethink aging itself. Bonus: reading it also provides the great pleasure of following the path of a unique and invaluable mind and heart.

In some ways the book is an indictment of our medical system, which recognizes that chronic illness and aging are a major health challenge, but often treats those who experience it or the specialists who treat it as second class citizens. And she has a number of recommendations for changing the system. Among the many reasons why the need for change is so compelling: People who are 65 or older represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 40 percent of hospitalized adults; with a few notable exceptions, hospitals as they are designed and operated currently present a great many challenges for elders.

“Elderhood” is also a road map for those of us who are aging to tap back into our boomer activist genes and insist on better care as we go forward, not only from the health care system, but also from policymakers who have a big impact on how that care is provided and paid for. As for ourselves individually, it’s time to discard the clichés and stereotypes of aging we may have internalized over the years.

“Elderhood is life’s third and final act; what it looks like is up to us,” Aronson writes. “This third act is not a repeat of the first or second. More often it is in life what it is in drama: the site of our story’s climax, denouement and resolution.”

The book dispels a number of myths about what aging looks like. “Old age is only partially determined by biology. It’s long, varied, relative and relational,” she writes, noting that “a good part of the suffering in old age is manufactured by our policies and attitudes.”

Owning Our Elderhood, in All Its Substages

Elderhood comprises a number of substages and in Aronson’s view we need better language for those substages. As an example: at 55, she has taken to referring to herself as old when she teaches her medical students at UCSF (who, she said, amused, most likely consider her “old” anyway).

“The more we own it, the better. We reform it,” she said. Much as the LGBTQ community has taken back the word “queer” and succeeded in taking the awful sting out of it, we can “reclaim, create or repurpose simple words to redefine themselves and their place in society,” she writes.

Aronson stresses that the numbers of elders who find satisfaction and purpose in their lives and consider their health excellent – despite having to contend with a variety of ills – are legion. Studies have shown, for example, that anxiety rates fall around 60. In their 80s, she has found, for the most part people are quite satisfied, more so than in their 40s and 50s.

“Adaptability is a huge defining characteristic of elderhood,” she told me.

In her elderhood clinic at the University of California San Francisco, Aronson treats people ranging in age from 60 to 102. (Fun fact: The World Health Organization, among others, defines people aged 60 and up as old.) So, she points out, there are at least two generations within this group.

“It’s time for elderhood to take its rightful place alongside childhood and adulthood,” she writes. That includes the “young-old” and the “old-old” and all the stages in between, under the umbrella of elderhood.

Aronson explained that in her clinic, dealing with the “whole human being” is of first and foremost importance. She focuses on functional status because “that’s a better predictor of whether [patients] will wind up in the hospital or not.” Together, she and her patients discuss preferences and goals – not just medical, but goals of life. She also wants to know about “who’s in their world?” In other words, how does the person live, who is available to be supportive, what obstacles or barriers lie in the path to a better quality of life and how does the person actually feel about aging. “That impacts recovery,” she said. The clinic practices what she calls the four “P’s”: prevention, purpose, priorities and perspective.

“Failing to fully acknowledge the ongoing human development and diversity of older Americans is bad medicine and flawed public health,” she says, noting that “we can only make aging good if we make it good for all of us.”

I could go on quoting Aronson, but I won’t. Instead, I encourage you to read it to discover the many gems to be found.

Maybe Madonna should read it too.

A: Battle Fatigue. Q: What Kind of Words Shouldn’t We Use About Illness?

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!

Talking About….Life, Ageism, Death and Everything in Between

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.

My “Comfy” Awards for Media Excellence

Photo: Netflix

Welcome to the new year!

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!

Yea or Nay on Medical Aid in Dying?

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.

You can read the piece here: http://sixtyandme.com/exploring-both-sides-of-the-physician-aided-dying-conversation/