Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

Posts Tagged ‘end of life medical decisions’

“If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t be in this nursing home!”

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The old lady was stuck with three sons. And because of this — in her mind — she was stuck in a nursing home.

Her sons visited. They met with the nursing home staff to make sure their mother’s needs were met. They were as good of family caregivers as I had ever seen in my years as a nursing home chaplain. But, more than once, she said, “If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t be in this nursing home.” The notion seems a bit old-fashioned in today’s world, where gender equality is such an important issue.

Well, it turns out she might have been correct.

A study reported in the current issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS) found that a patient was more likely to die at home (as opposed to in a hospital or nursing home) if you had more family members… especially more daughters.

The burdens of a family caregiver

Being a family caregiver at home is a tremendous burden. In the JAGS study, the average number of caregiving hours in the last month of life provided by the family to someone who dies at home is 210. For those who die in a nursing home or hospice inpatient unit, it is 81.

Interestingly, the emotional burden for families is highest when the patient dies in a hospital and lowest when they die at home. Perhaps the transfer to the hospital in itself is a great emotional strain. Guilt about NOT being able to take care of the patient at home must also be a factor. And though providing hands-on care can be a physical burden, it may give the caregiver the self-satisfaction that they are doing their best. The caregiver feels more in control.

What about the daughters? Why does having daughters make it more likely to die at home? Unfortunately, the study did not tease out why, but we can guess.

Right or wrong, the cultural norm in our society is that nurturing and caring for the young and elderly are duties more often performed by women. Yet, I have witnessed so many men who admirably performed caregiving duties to their elderly parents that I know men can be great caregivers. But in these cases, the men usually stepped in because there were no women available.

Who’s going to take care of mother?

Hank’s mother, Charlotte, after her move to Colorado, with her namesake great-granddaughter, Lia Charlotte

I saw this “Who’s-going-take-care-of-mother?” question play out in my own family. Mom had lived for years independently in a retirement facility in Tampa before moving into assisted living. My brother, sister, and I took turns visiting our mother. I like to think we each took about the same amount of time away from our work and families to serve as long-distance caregivers.

As our mother’s dementia progressed, it became clear that we needed to move her to a facility closer to one of us. We each visited memory care units near our homes in Tallahassee, Boulder, and Northern Virginia. Each of us was willing and able to become “the caregiver.” We weighed the quality and cost of the facilities we had found.

After we all had done our due diligence, my sister declared, “I want to do this. I want mom to come to Colorado.”

I called Janice last week to see if my memory of this decision-making process was the same as hers. “Yes,” she said. “I knew you and Dennis were quite capable of caring for our mother, but I was her daughter. There is a special bond between mothers and their daughters.”

And that was that.

Don’t Say of Me, “He fought to the bitter end!”

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“Dad was a fighter. We never gave up on him!” they said to each other.

For me, it was one of the saddest scenes I had witnessed since I started working as a chaplain in 1983.

I must emphasize that my interpretation of this scene as being sad is my opinion. This entry is about how I want to be treated in the end…or not treated as the case may be.

Others do want to “fight to the very end” and I can support that. But this case seemed beyond all reason. You can decide for yourself.

On this particular day, I was in the emergency department waiting room with the family of one our nursing home residents who had been rushed to the hospital. The patient was riddled with cancer, literally. He had tumors breaking his skin in multiple places. His body was wasted.

Earlier at the nursing home, I sat with the wife outside the patient’s room while the paramedics were beating on the man’s chest. One EMT compassionately knelt by this woman to tell her that they did not have a pulse on her husband, but they were going to continue CPR and take him to the hospital. He said he was not hopeful that they could save the man’s life. He did an admirable job of breaking bad news.

When the ER doc came out to tell the family that they were unable to revive him they said to each other, “Dad was a fighter. We never gave up on him!”

Fighting battles

This story has so many things to unpack. Ethics. Compassion. Autonomy. “First, do no harm.” Surrogate decision-making. Moral distress of the professionals. Not to mention the patient’s adult children were not speaking to his wife, their stepmother. But I’ll focus now on the language of fighting to the bitter end.

“Keeping Away Death,” sculpture by Julian Hoke Harris, located near Grady Hospital in Atlanta.

We see it often in obituaries, “John died after a long battle with cancer.”

I’m sorry. In my view, this language makes John a loser. What a horrible thing to say about him. Everybody dies. In framing death as a battle lost, we ALL will be losers when it comes to the last act of our lives.

What does this say to the millions of us who read these words and feel ashamed when we have a disease which we know will kill us? We can only conclude, “It’s my fault I am dying.”

Did I allow too much stress to cause me to get sick? Did I not try hard enough? Did I lack faith?

Let me be clear. At this point in my life, if I get a fairly treatable cancer with a good prognosis, I will “fight” it, if you must use that language. I just do not like the battle metaphor when your enemy is death. Death is part of life not its enemy.

“He died peacefully…”

What got me thinking about this is a book I listened to recently as I drove from Oxford, Mississippi to Northern Virginia. Actually, it was two short books in one audio program — Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and its Metaphors (1988).

What Sontag only barely mentioned in the more recent book was that she was being successfully treated for breast cancer when writing the earlier one and later “fought” and “defeated” uterine cancer. She finally died fighting a rare and very aggressive form of leukemia in 2004. And fight she did.

Her son, David Rieff, wrote a very moving memoir (Swimming in a Sea of Death) about what it is like for a family member to try to support a patient who was dragging herself through a painful dying in the false hope she would be cured.

If you must mention a cause of death in my obituary say, “He died peacefully while living with cancer” or “He died peacefully after months with palliative care and hospice.” Or, better still, “He didn’t give up, he let go and just let things be.”

Making End-of-Life Decisions for Dementia Patients

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“We didn’t want to put him through that again,” she told me. I wrote previously about my childhood friend eventually dying with dementia after years of decline. His wife decided not to send him back to the hospital.

Here’s the question families of dementia patients face as they consider end-of-life decisions: Shall we save his life so he can become more demented and slowly decline further or shall we let him die peacefully? I have been thinking about end-of-life decisions for dementia patients because I just was interviewed for a podcast that focuses on helping family caregivers of these patients. Listen to “Rodger That” for my interview and scores of others.

With almost four million copies of my book Hard Choices for Loving People in circulation, I’m pleased to say I’ve received very few negative comments about the book. One person did push back against my characterizing dementia, like Alzheimer’s, as a terminal disease. People don’t die from dementia, they die from other conditions like pneumonia, they said.

Dementia IS a terminal disease

In my view, dementia has all the earmarks of a terminal disease. The patient declines over many years. The general trajectory is downhill although they may recover temporarily from some setbacks. Had they not had dementia they probably would have lived longer. The end is always in death. Sounds pretty terminal to me.

Me and my mother at a memory care facility the year before she died.

As with any end-of-life decision, trying to discern what the patient would have chosen is paramount. Consider this question the physician asked me and my sister after mom fractured her hip in the memory care facility, “How did your mom feel about her dementia?” He didn’t ask whether or not she would want hip surgery. Mom hated, hated, hated losing her mind. It was clear our goal was just to keep her comfortable.

I would venture that everyone fears ending up living their last years where you do not know your family members, are incontinent, and are dependent on others for dressing, eating and toileting. Who wants this?

Then why, oh why would a family decide to save the life of a patient in this condition when they could have opted for comfort care and allow a natural, peaceful death? I think most of us would choose an earlier exit from such a fate.

My mother’s doctor helped clarify this for us with his pointed question. We said, “No. Mom would not want any treatment that would extend her life.”

Letting go and letting be

A word of encouragement to those who may face making decisions for a demented patient: I have found, in general, families are able to get to a place to allow a peaceful death at the right time. The truth is the patient has been dying bit by bit for years. These families have been grieving the loss of all the pieces that make up the person they love — their memory, their health, their expressions of love, and so much more.

When it comes time to say, “Let them go peacefully,” it is just the next step because they have been letting go all along. It is time to just let things be.

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