Caring for the dying
Although 70 per cent of Americans die from chronic disease, most do not make their preferences for end of life care known to their families, leaving loved ones unprepared for their final days. Patients who wish to die at home and who can benefit from palliative or hospice care usually are referred too late – often in the last four weeks of life – to maintain comfort and quality of life and to better prepare for death.
The nation’s aging population is presenting new challenges to terminally ill patients and their loved ones, who must manage chronic pain, disability and questions over when to engage palliative or hospice care, and to health-care providers who help them navigate the end stages of life.
To advocate for health care that maximizes quality of life and that minimizes unnecessary suffering in end-of-life care, Rutgers School of Nursing has partnered with Barnabas Health Hospice and the Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey Home Care and Hospice to educate nurses, physicians, social workers and other professionals on how to improve the end-of-life experience for patients and their families through the “Hope and Resilience at the End-of-Life” conference in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on March 7 and 8.
Judy Barberio, associate clinical professor at Rutgers School of Nursing and one of the conference’s organizers, discusses some of the most pressing issues faced by terminally ill patients and their families.
How can palliative care and hospice improve the quality of life for the terminally ill and their families?
Palliative care assists a person who has been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness who might die within the next one to two years. It provides an additional layer of support and symptom management as the patient continues with disease-modifying treatment and provides bereavement support for families as well as addresses the patient’s physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs. Studies have shown that people who start palliative care early in the advanced stages of their illness can prolong their lives and have a better quality of life.
Hospice, which is engaged when disease-modifying treatment has ceased, is appropriate when the patient will most likely die within six months and the focus turns to making the patient comfortable and maintaining quality of life.
How can family members help a terminally ill person continue to live a full life with a chronic illness?
People don’t stop being who they are just because they are dying. They can still enjoy a full life by focusing on the small things that make a difference: wearing clothes they love, eating favorite foods, listening to music, reading books and spending time with friends and family.
Palliative care can help by supporting the patients’ family and friends, who often are grieving the illness and eventual loss of their loved one. The team can help family members come to terms with their confusing emotions and understand what the patient is going through. They also help with addressing pain and managing distressing symptoms as a patient goes through treatment and physical decline. They assist patients in expressing their decisions as to the kind of treatment they want at the end of life. They even can help patients live their dreams at a time when they need their dreams the most.
Can pain be controlled when you have a terminal illness?
Pain is one of the most frequent and feared symptoms in advanced disease. For many families, the last memory of their loved one may either be that of a “peaceful” and comfortable transition or that of a painful end. Most pain can be relieved or controlled. Effective pain control requires good communication among patients, caregivers and health care providers. Pain control plans are tailored to meet the patient’s particular needs and are adjusted as these needs change.
How can caregivers and family members combat “compassion fatigue?”
Compassion fatigue has been described as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional and physical pain. It is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the caregiver or family’s ability to feel empathy for the patient and can lead to depression and stress-related illness. Signs of compassion fatigue include feelings of exhaustion, reduced ability to feel sympathy or empathy, anger and irritability, increased use of alcohol or drugs, and impaired ability to make decisions and care for the patient. Once compassion fatigue sets in, a caregiver should receive assistance through a health-care provider and counseling. Compassion fatigue counseling should screen for and treat depression and secondary traumatic stress as well as provide an early detection system to prevent relapse.
Self-care is the cornerstone of compassion fatigue prevention. Often family members or caregivers put their needs last and feel guilty taking extra time for themselves to engage in stress-reduction strategies, such as exercising, taking a long bath, sleeping well, meditating, doing yoga or getting a massage. It’s important for caregivers and family members to put their own health and wellness at the top of the priority list while caring for loved ones.