Let’s begin at the end. What do most of us wish for at the end of our lives? Dignity? Comfort? Respect? Love? These are the things I want for myself and my loved ones. If caring for my mother taught me anything, it was to be as prepared as possible for when that time came for her.
My experience with death in our family has been very limited. Neither I nor my siblings were present when my father passed away in the hospital in the early morning hours. Fortunately, I was present when Mom drew her last breath while she lay in a coma in a local hospital’s emergency room ten years ago. It was a peaceful passing!
I asked a friend of mine, Fr. Thomas Schroer, S.M., Ph.D., to share his thoughts and experiences with death and the dying. Fr. Tom’s mother was attended by hospice staff while in a nursing facility. He also has accompanied several dying individuals in their last hours. Fr. Tom shared that it is important to have well-trained and caring professionals assisting families at the crisis time of a loved one’s impending death. It’s an exhausting emotional roller-coaster ride. Family members are bound to experience a range of emotions, even conflicting ones, when caring for a dying individual. In such a situation, caregivers are in need of support, as well as the dying person. “I remember so well the relief I experienced when hospice care providers arrived to assist my family during my mother’s last days,” writes Fr. Tom. “The healthcare professionals were committed to making her as comfortable as possible. We could now focus completely on supporting one another and my mother with the confidence that she was in good hands.”
Fr. Tom highly recommends reading the book, Final Gifts, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelly, two hospice nurses. “As nurses for the dying,” write these two authors, “we see ourselves as the counterparts of birthing coaches or midwives, who assist in bringing life from the womb into the world. At the other end of life, we help to ease the transition from life through death to whatever exists beyond.” As family caregivers, we increase the probability of the dying process taking place in the most lovable and caring manner possible, if we are able to envision the dying process as a “second birthing process.”
Since you want the best care possible for your loved one, a hospice provider can assist you in making that vision a reality, even in the familiar surroundings of one’s own home, if that is preferred. Health insurance will usually cover the expenses. It is important to check out in advance the reputations of the hospice providers in your vicinity. Fr. Tom notes that not all organizations are equal in terms of their professional excellence and care.
Death is part of everyone’s life cycle. However, it is rarely a topic for serious family conversation until a crisis. My family was so fortunate. Our parents took the initiative early in their retirement years to meet with a family lawyer to draft all the necessary papers for wills and advanced directives. They prepaid for plots at their local cemetery. My oldest sister was designated executor of their wills, while I was made their health-care surrogate. Following Mom’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, I arranged for our parents to meet with a geriatric care manager/financial planner. My parents discussed these plans with all the family members. Dad kept all their important papers in a portable metal file case, with copies at the lawyer’s office. This made it easy for us to know where to look if anything happened to either one of them.
Legal advanced planning is the best plan to have. This ensures the decisions you and your loved one wish will be honored without the expense, delay, or loss of legal rights that can go along with the court appointment of a guardian. If someone dies without a will, their estate goes into probate. The probate court then uses the laws of the state to decide who inherits what. If you already have formal documents in place, take a few minutes to review them now, in case they need updating.
My recommendations to caregivers include:
- Start the conversation with your loved one while they are still able to tell you what kind of end-of-life treatment they would accept or not accept. “The Conversation Project” offers a free starter kit online to help family members begin these discussions. (See resources below.)
- How would you/they want to be remembered? What matters most to you/them?
- What level of medical interventions do you/they want? CPR? Feeding Tube? Artificial nutrition? Pain control?
- Make sure end-of-life wishes are honored, not only with a living will or advanced directive, but also a POLST (Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment). The POLST is a medical form that is legally recognized in many It spells out end-of-life treatments that you want or don’t want. Medical personnel, especially EMT’s who come by ambulance in a crisis MUST follow the instructions on a POLST. (See resources below.)
- Designate a health care surrogate for yourself and your loved one, as well as a person you trust who can serve as your agent with durable power of attorney. Consult with an attorney before making or revoking a Durable Power of Attorney.
- Look into what your local hospice services may have to offer if and when it comes time. If you think your loved one is nearing that time, discuss this with your family doctor. You can request an evaluation by a hospice organization yourself, but the formal request for services will usually have to come with a physician’s request.
- What type of spiritual practices and memorial traditions would you/they want?
Endings are extremely important and deserve our loving attention to details. Maggie Callanan notes, “Our dying is the ultimate signature on our life’s story.” Talking with family and friends, consulting with health and legal professionals, bereavement experts, and spiritual advisors can help you work through the grief and loss issues you will inevitably face. Knowing you have done all you can as a caregiver to be prepared will help you get on with life and loving and making wonderful memories in the current phase of your loved one’s life journey.
I wish you peace, patience, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!
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Many thanks to Fr. Thomas Schroer for taking time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts about end-of-life care!
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The Conversation Project is a nonprofit organization devoted to helping families have conversations about end-of-life wishes. Their website is: http://theconversationproject.org.
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The National POLST Paradigm is a website that provides information about Physical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment: http://polst.org.
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Here is an interview with hospice worker Maggie Callanan, one of the authors of Final Gifts: https://youtu.be/kojj-OrS5Jk.
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Dr Jennifer Bute has released a series of short videos discussing dementia issues from her inside perspective as a person diagnosed with early onset dementia. Watch her seven-minute video about end-of-life issues: http://gloriousopportunity.org/dementia-issues.php.
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The Alzheimer’s Association has information to help with end-of-life planning at their website: http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-planning-ahead.asp#ixzz2lDd6TML2.