It seems odd to say, but people sometimes learn more about life when facing their own death or the death of a loved one than at any other time in their lives.
Leslie Schaeffer, Bethesda Hospice Care’s Outreach Coordinator and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Chaplain Dorothy Gannon with Bethesda Hospice Care, have a combined 21 years of hospice service, and both agree that working in hospice has enriched their lives. Below are just some of the life lessons that they have learned during their time.
Adjust Your Priorities
The hospice patients Dorothy and Leslie see are typically 80 years old or older. “I don’t meet many people who have just received a terminal diagnosis,” says Dorothy. “My patients are not usually dying of a particular disease. Their bodies are just wearing out, and living is taking more energy than they have to spare.”
“They have gradually passed through a long period of decline, and now take in each moment as best they can,” says Leslie.
The real struggle may be with family members, who worry they are giving up on their loved one too soon by opting for hospice services.
What matters to hospice patients are people—family, friends—having them nearby, mending and remembering relationships. “They think about what they are proud of; the significant memories, and those thoughts almost always center on the people they love,” says Dorothy.
Make Time for Loved Ones
Family members can play a huge role at the end of life because the hospice patient places such a high value on interaction with loved ones. Some may want to share memories and others solve longstanding disputes. However, the desire is to remember, restore and live in the present moment.
“What concerns hospice patients most are their family and friends,” Dorothy says. “Are they going to be okay after I am gone?”
Don’t Hesitate to Share Feelings
When Dorothy first visits the home of a hospice patient, they do not often talk about death or illness. “We tend to talk about their lives, because how they are feeling is not much different than how they have felt for a long time,” she says. “When they do talk about dying, they are not so much afraid of death, but they are afraid of the process of death: ‘Will I die alone? Will it be painful?’”
Some hospice patients are willing to share their feelings more than others. Those who did not actively share earlier in their lives tend to find it more difficult. Dorothy and Leslie find women more open and men less so, and different approaches are required for both.
“The process of dying is as individual as the person going through it,” says Leslie. “It just depends upon the person, their personality and their life experiences.”
Telling someone that you love, respect, and are proud of them is worth any initial awkwardness you may feel. Dorothy can get conversations started, and sometimes hospice volunteers stay in the room to facilitate the conversation.
If the patient wants to talk about dying, they may feel more comfortable speaking with a professional because the patient doesn’t want to upset her/his family.
Dorothy has noticed that male hospice patients who are military veterans will open up more to hospice veteran volunteers.
“The key is to listen intently, and say everything that needs to be said,” she says. “The most common regret among hospice patients is a broken relationship with a loved one that wasn’t addressed.”
Dorothy and Leslie agree that anyone 18 years old or older should have an Advance Directive and appoint someone to coordinate their medical power of attorney.
The Advance Directive outlines what a person, when they become incapable of making medical decisions on their own, desires in terms of medical treatment. The person designated as having medical power of attorney is responsible for seeing those wishes carried out. “The designated power of attorney is the most important document of the two,” says Dorothy. “The Advance Directive is an important guide for the person with the power of attorney.”
According to Leslie, some people draw up an Advance Directive and designate a person to have medical power of attorney and then tell no one about it. “Death is so scary, they don’t want to talk about it,” she says. “You have to let your family, the person you selected as having your medical power of attorney, and your physician know about these arrangements.”
Life Lessons from the Experts
“My experience with hospice has changed me in many ways,” says Leslie. “To see the true value of living a good life—living it to the fullest is a powerful inspiration. It enables me to put things into perspective and be grateful for all my blessings each day.”
“So many people who are not facing death immediately are afraid of it,” says Dorothy. “When they go through the hospice experience with a loved one, they will often say they don’t think they will ever be afraid of death again, because if you have what you need at the end of life it is not ugly or terrifying. For the people present for it, it can be rich, peaceful, and powerful in a positive way. And I love that people can let go of so much anxiety and fear.”
Bethesda Hospice Care strives to provide exceptional care to seniors and their families. To learn more about hospice care services for yourself of a loved one, contact us.