When I had my abstract, ‘End-of-life care: A very personal story’ accepted for oral presentation at the 2014 Alzheimer Europe Conference in Glasgow, I honestly never expected that it would receive a standing ovation from the audience. My presentation was included as part of the session on Palliative Care, and given the difficult nature of this topic I thought the audience would be small and very reserved. How wrong I was!
My presentation was inspired by my blog post of the same name published in 2012 that detailed my dad’s end-of-life care. The reason I chose to submit an abstract about it was purely because I feel that it is an outstanding example of end-of-life care being delivered in a care home setting, with the potential to inspire care providers as the very best of ‘best practice’.
Whilst it may be intensely difficult for me to talk about, mostly because it brings back very vivid memories of great sadness at losing my dad, it is vital that professionals caring for people at the end of their life (whether those people have dementia or not) understand what good end-of-life care looks like, how to deliver it and why it is so important.
End-of-life care is emotive. It is something many of us instinctively steer clear of, and as I told the audience at the Alzheimer Europe conference, it is something I never really thought about until my dad needed it. What I also learned from other presenters in our session is that end-of-life care is something that many professionals aren’t very well equipped to deliver either.
There is a lack of training for healthcare professionals in end-of-life care, and training within social care settings is patchy and often inadequate. It’s not just about how to provide end-of-life care either; it also about how seeing someone through to the end of their life impacts upon the professionals who have provided that care.
The landscape in end-of-life care is complex, and full of stark realisations about facing up to our own mortality whilst providing the very best care to the person who is passing away. The overwhelming message from the Palliative Care session at the Alzheimer Europe Conference, however, was that despite the complexity of our emotional responses, the practical nature of end-of-life care is generally about simplicity and humanity.
For example, in my presentation I detailed the environment that my dad spent the last two weeks of his life in:
“Before dad’s arrival at the (care) home we had filled his room with his favourite things. Surrounded by his books, pictures and mementoes, with his much loved music playing and a lavender scent in the air, dad spent the last days of his life in bed, in his own cotton sheets and dressed in his own smart clothes. His bed faced a large window that looked out onto the garden where squirrels and cats played – a perfect scene for a man who had always loved animals.”
I also spoke about the care he received from the care home staff, including a lovely soak in the bath, delicious puree food (up until the last 5 days of his life) and how he was regularly turned and changed, enabling his pressure sores to almost heal by the time he passed away. There was a special mention for the care home staff too:
“We could not have asked for professionals who were more caring, attentive and loving than those people were towards dad.”
In these days of negative perceptions towards social care, and the people who work on the frontline in care homes up and down the UK, it is sadly very rare to hear good news stories, not least about end-of-life care, which is often fraught with disagreements and issues about palliative care being tantamount to ‘giving up’ on a person.
Yet good social care, and indeed good palliative care, can give immeasurable help and support to families when their loved one is nearing the end of their life. As I told the audience in Glasgow:
“An intensely sad time was made bearable for us as a family precisely because of the care given to dad. We felt huge relief that we no longer had to worry about whether dad was receiving the care that he needed, and the fact that he was so comfortable, calm and peaceful was testimony to that care.”
What of the staff providing that care though, and their feelings? I could never have made this presentation without eluding to how they reacted to my dad’s passing, mostly because their humanity shone through in a way that for me should be celebrated:
“When dad was wheeled out of the home for the last time by the undertakers, the staff cried with us – for them, although losing a resident wasn’t a new experience, it was clear that every resident and their family matters. In that moment, their humanity might have ‘gone against’ protocol and practice, but it said so much about the care and compassion that underpins their work and which no amount of mandatory box ticking should ever be allowed to eradicate.”
People who work in care jobs are human beings, with natural human emotions. Any attempt to turn them into robots who don’t have those feelings is basically asking them to remove the element of themselves that is most vital in providing the warm, caring, compassionate support that we would all want for our loved ones and ourselves.
That theme of humanity featured heavily in the list of the key elements of my dad’s end-of-life care that I concluded my presentation with, and that motivated me to write this blog. I would give each entry on this list equal importance and suggest that together they are viewed as part of a holistic package of end-of-life care:
- Person-centred care
- Teamwork with families
- Attention to detail
- Well-trained and well-led staff
- Dignity and respect
- Kindness and compassion
- Personalised environment
- Time and patience
- Continuity of care
- Can-do attitude
- Multi-disciplinary team approach
These key qualities embody the simplicity I mentioned earlier, and also include one of the two main themes of the 2014 Alzheimer Europe Conference – Dignity. You would think that achieving dignity in the last days and hours of someone’s life is something that would happen routinely, but sadly not everyone is as lucky as we were as a family.
I hope that the standing ovation my presentation received is proof that my dad’s story can inspire better end-of-life care for other people in the future, and that speaking about even the most difficult topics can be warmly received if you connect with people on a human level. And that is perhaps the most important message of all: we have great caring qualities as human beings that have the ability to change lives at every stage of life, even at the end.
Until next time…