Hospice gives aid during life’s final journey
Everyone celebrates a birth but death is often a taboo subject, social worker Susan Hawk points out.
“Life is a cycle. At the end of life, when you need people the most, some people may not have anyone,” Hawk said.
She counsels local patients and families through hospice services. Every family dynamic is different, which means she and nursing staff who work with patients and their families must adapt to whatever the situation requires.
In an ideal world, a person dies at home surrounded by a loving, peaceful family. That doesn’t always happen, Hawk said. Sometimes, family members don’t live nearby or families are estranged.
Hawk tries to work with families to focus on the immediate needs of their loved one. If families seem unable to cope with the situation, Hawk said she’ll work with nurses.
Introducing a social worker into the situation can intimidate some families.
“It brings home the reality of the situation,” Hawk said.
Education about the process of death and dying is important, Hawk said. When a patient enters hospice care, staff give families three brochures that explain the process. She encourages families to read them; those who do say they were glad they took the time.
Nurses also will do their best to educate families about what to expect. Physical changes or symptoms that are a normal part of the process, can frighten those who have never seen someone fail.
It’s impossible to predict when someone will take that final breath. Hawk recalled a time when she left a patient who had been talking and seemed to be doing relatively well. She had driven just one block when the caregiver called to say the patient had passed.
“Not everyone takes the same path,” she said.
Bereavement and grief counseling services can continue for the family up to 13 months after the death of a loved one. Everyone grieves in their own way, Hawk said, and not every family takes advantage of the service.
“I truly believe if we do our part in educating and preparing families on the front end — and grieving is never easy — it makes the process easier after the patient has passed,” Hawk said. “We learn to grieve from an early age by watching the people around us. I think it’s very important to teach children how to grieve. Kids are so innocent and they want to help, but some families want to guard them. It comes back to developing coping skills.”
Faith can be an important part of the process, but staff members do not impose their own beliefs on the patient or family. Local chaplains or pastors work with hospice providers in whatever capacity may be desired, Hawk said. She’s noticed a trend of more patients asking for the services of a chaplain, and recalled a patient who asked to be baptized with full immersion as he received hospice services in a nursing home. Staff utilized a whirlpool tub with a lift at the nursing home to grant his request. After his baptism, “he had the biggest grin on his face,” Hawk said. “It was very emotional and satisfying for everyone involved.”
Hospice workers try to grant a patient’s last wish, if possible. The most dramatic local example came in 2012, when Dorothy Ellis told Hawk she would like to fly over her home in a powered parachute. Hawk made a phone call, and quickly organized the event. It was captured on a video that can be found on YouTube: “Grandma Dorothy Flies Over the Rainbow.”
Not all wishes are quite as dramatic. Sometimes, a patient wants help writing letters to loved ones, or making a phone call to someone he or she hadn’t spoken to in years. They may want to resolve a family dispute, or make peace with family members who have been estranged.
“Sometimes, it’s the little things that mean a lot,” Hawk said.