How we spend our waning days

When we move our clocks back one hour this week, most of us notice how the increased darkness affects our mood. Many report feeling more depressed in the winter. Caregivers, especially those taking care of someone with a terminal illness, may turn their thoughts to the waning days of their loved one’s life.

Just like the seasons, our lives have a fall and a winter. As the leaves start to turn color and branches become barren, it is natural to feel sad, even depressed. But there is such beauty in the fall, and the winter allows us to huddle beside the fire enjoying time with those we love.

Atul Gwande, best-selling author of Being Mortal, notes how medical care sometimes prevents us from taking the time to define our waning days. “The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet—and this is the painful paradox—we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days.”

If the person you’re caring for has gotten news that they are in their final months, you’re undoubtedly thinking about how to make the most of the time left. Dr. Gwande reminds us that we need to involve more than just our doctors in health decisions when faced with a terminal diagnosis. If a specialist recommends a treatment, it is important to consider their advice, but also to consult family members, friends and spiritual advisors. Of primary importance is what the patient herself/himself wants, and how the proposed treatment might make these plans and goals more or less possible.

Nationwide, November is Hospice and Palliative Care Month. Hospice care is usually provided in a person’s home, in an assisted living or nursing home or specialized in-patient homes like the Cottingham Hospice House in Seneca. Hospice care focuses on comfort care when patients are no longer receiving curative treatments. It provides medical, spiritual and emotional care for the patient and their family. Professional caregivers help the patient and the caregiver talk about difficult end-of-life questions. And they help you identify what sustains the soul and helps people find enjoyment. Most people with hospice care live longer than those in standard medical care perhaps because they are choosing where and how to spend their final months.

Palliative care focuses on comfort care while patients continue to receive curative treatment. Palliative care providers work with the patient to determine the ideal balance between treatment of the illness and managing symptoms.

Talk with your physician to determine if these are good options for you or your loved one. If you need help connecting to a doctor, call 1-844-Prisma Health-DOCS (447-3627) or click here.
As you enjoy the cooler days of fall, take time to talk with your loved one about how you want to spend your own last days.

Eunice Lehmacher, a licensed independent social worker, is the bereavement coordinator at Prisma Health Hospice of the Foothills in Seneca.This blog originally ran as a column in The Journal newspaper. For additional information about the program, visit ghs.org/healthcareservices/hospice-of-the-foothills/

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