Hospice is a program that provides supportive care to control symptoms and improve the quality of life of a patient in the end stages of his or her disease. Hospice benefits people who have a terminal illness who have decided they want their medical treatments to focus on pain and symptom care.
As a hospice social worker I am sometimes asked, “What will my death, or my mother’s, father’s, child’s death look like?” Research and experience provide a response to questions such as this, but there is no one “answer.” Hospice is no longer a program or service just for cancer patients. Many diseases may cause a person’s death. Each disease has a different process, and each patient has an individual process he or she will follow. There is information about what typically happens and this is shared with patients and families when the time is appropriate.
The difficulty a family may experience when a death is perceived as untimely can be troublesome to the patient. It is important to listen to our loved ones as they talk about how they feel and what they feel. As a woman whose mother died suddenly, I did not get the chance to say goodbye or work through issues that may have been helpful to resolve while she was still living. I was lucky enough to get to know my mother as an adult and to enjoy a relationship of friendship with her. There were many things we did discuss, but there was much left that I would have liked to have had the time to share with her, learn from her and probably even cry with her over. Patients whose adult children do not accept the terminal status of their parents may be robbing themselves of an opportunity to have conversations that may be healing and will become cherished memories.
Hospice social workers help with a variety of situations in a patient’s home. We evaluate each patient and family situation, and if needed, will identify and link the family with area resources. Social workers also can advocate for a patient or family as needed with insurance companies, employers and other systems a family may be involved with. Social workers are trained to listen. We do not work miracles or make feelings go away, but we can help identify options in order for patients and families to decide what they want to do. It can be helpful to have someone who is neutral to talk to, cry with and help identify strengths that will allow the patient and family to move through the dying process in a supported way.
Social workers can help identify support systems that a family may have not thought of as willing and able to help them during this time. We live in the Volunteer State. People in this area are generous, caring and many are hospice volunteers. Church groups, adults and youth also are willing to provide help in the form of yard work, building wheelchair ramps and so on.
Death occurs when a person’s body completes the natural process of shutting down, and when the person’s spirit completes its natural process of reconciling and finishing. These two processes need to happen in a way appropriate and unique to the values, beliefs and lifestyle of the dying person. While the end result is the same, each person’s death will be unique and individual. We must each die our own death. The hospice program at Blount Memorial gives medical, emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families through this process.
Ginger Billingsley is a social worker with the hospice program of Blount Memorial Palliative Care. She can be reached by calling 865-977-5702.