The Life Matters Media Newswire aims to serve as a comprehensive portal of all news related to end of life decision making and care. We aggregate stories from other media outlets in one place- here, where you can access them easily. We also strive to produce original content covering stories we feel are receiving scant attention.

Editorial Calls For Better End Of Life Care In Nursing Homes

A new editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association calls for bold action to improve the care and support provided to seriously ill nursing home patients and their families.

Author Dr. Kathleen Unroe, an Indiana University Center for Aging Research investigator, focuses on applying key recommendations from the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) widely circulated report, Dying in America, within long-term care facilities.

Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

“Their report on dying in America presents us with an opportunity to have a national conversation about how we can better care for the many individuals who will die in nursing homes,” Unroe wrote in a statement to Life Matters Media. “Unless we use this opportunity to push the conversation forward, the IOM report is a wasted effort, and we, as a nation, can’t afford that.”

The 2014 report cited the present as the best time to normalize conversations about death and dying, as millions of aging baby boomers will soon face difficult end of life care decisions for themselves and on behalf of family members.

The report also emphasized the urgent need for end of life care to reflect the principles of palliative medicine– care that provides pain relief and that centers on enhancing the quality of life among the chronically or seriously ill.

Dr. Kathleen Unroe

Dr. Kathleen Unroe

Nearly all nursing home patients, Unroe writes, will benefit from palliative care. Evidence suggests that, on average, palliative care and hospice patients live longer than similarly ill patients who do not receive such care.

More than one in four older adults die in nursing homes, including 70 percent of Americans with advanced dementia. However, end of life care for nursing home residents has long been associated with poor symptom management and low family satisfaction. In 2014, patients and caregivers ranked nursing homes to be the worst settings for end of life care.

That survey, conducted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), measured experiences in three hospice settings: nursing homes (skilled and regular facilities), home care (home and assisted living facilities) and inpatient care (acute care hospitals and freestanding hospice inpatient units).

Out of a possible high score of 100, hospice inpatient units ranked highest overall (97), followed by acute care hospitals (93) and home care (92). Nursing home care received a 90, receiving lower marks for hospice team communication and emotional support.

Researchers suggest a lack of visits from skilled nursing staff in nursing homes led to lower scores.

National implementation of the survey will begin this year, and hospices will be required to participate on a monthly basis in order to receive the full Annual Payment Update from CMS.

“Those of us who care for vulnerable nursing home patients have an obligation to recognize the reality of caring for people near the end of life and work collectively to improve the quality of this care,” the editorial concludes. “These IOM report recommendations can be incorporated into the strategic plans, policies, and activities of professional societies and health and social service organizations.”

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Volunteers Help Incapacitated Adults With No Family Or Friends

Incapacitated adults without family or friends benefit from volunteer surrogates that act as medical decision-makers and patient advocates before, during and after hospitalization, according to findings from an innovative program to train surrogates.

Adults without surrogates are often estranged from family, face abuse and neglect, and are at high risk of receiving unnecessary medical treatments as they age. The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, followed the first 50 patients enrolled in Indiana’s Wishard Volunteer Advocates Program, an effort produced by the Regenstrief Institute and Eskenazi Health, a public safety-net health system.


Robin Bandy, program director

Volunteer surrogates were supervised by Robin Bandy, an attorney and the program’s founding director. Legal guardianship was formally assigned to the Volunteer Advocates Program. More than 90 percent of those who survived hospitalization were transferred to nursing facilities, according to the study, and many continue to receive visits.

Patients ranged in age from 22 to 90; average age was 67. All but one of the patients had at least four medical conditions at the time of hospitalization.

“It’s always been a challenge to find people to speak for adults who don’t have anyone. The adults who are enrolled in our program are people admitted to the hospital with no friends or family who can be their decision-maker or advocate on their behalf,” said Dr. Alexia Torke, a Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University Center for Aging Research investigator. “Some of them don’t have contact with their own family. Some have been abused or neglected by family.”

Volunteers made health care decisions, including end of life decisions, facilitated post-hospitalization placement to nursing facilities and were often the only people to monitor care in nursing homes after hospital discharge. Torke said some patients are able to interact and form relationships with guardians, although many remain unconscious.

“The majority of these patients were so incapacitated by the time they came into our program there was no way they could have done advance care planning,” said Bandy. “We had to go to court to get guardians appointed, because they had no capacity to make their own decisions.”


Dr. Alexia Torke

Among those assigned volunteers after hospitalization: an 85-year-old woman with dementia who had been living alone with her dead cat in a dilapidated apartment; a 65-year-old woman with dementia removed from her son’s care after he broke her arm; a 90-year-old man removed from his home, malnourished and covered in urine and bedbugs – his caregivers were not allowing him access to food or medicine.

“Many patients had not had basic, routine medical care for years,” Bandy added. “It’s important to have someone advocating for the patient, to make sure they get the medical care they need and not only in a crises.”

Some of them don’t have contact with their own family. Some have been abused or neglected by family.

Torke said she hopes the program will serve as a national model to replace or complement the frequently overwhelmed guardianship services provided by state agencies. An incapacitated adult may face Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or coma. Program volunteers are assigned only one or two patients.

“Guardianship services have really been a patchwork state-by-state. Each state has tried to find a solution, and in Indiana there actually were not any state guardians available. There was a desperate need,” Torke added. “We have had no trouble finding volunteers to train, and many have health care or social service experience. This program has tremendous potential to be expanded, however, it is able to take place in Indiana because state law allows this kind of system.” A state statute allows guardianship programs that are not tied to the government.

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Facing Alzheimer’s With Family

The Genius of Marian intimately explores the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease on a close-knit Northeastern family. The documentary, directed by married couple Anna Fitch and Banker White, focuses on Banker’s 61-year-old mother who is struggling with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The film, made of blurry home movies, one-on-one interviews and family photos, opens with a scene from their 2009 Christmas celebration. Pam White offers her family a jar of macadamia nuts, but mistakenly refers to them as “acadania nuts,” foreshadowing a sharp decline in her cognitive abilities.

Pam, a former model and social worker, often smiles and retains a sense of elegance throughout the film’s most difficult moments. In one extended scene, she is unable to remember how to put on her coat and scarf. In another, she struggles to enjoy a fishing trip at the lake, to the annoyance of her husband, Ed, who serves as her primary caregiver. Not one scene is glamorized.


Pam White faces early-onset Alzheimer’s. Still from “The Genius of Marian.”

We learn that in 2008, Pam decided to write a book about her mother, acclaimed painter Marian Williams Steele, who died in 2001 from complications associated with Alzheimer’s. One year into the project, Pam was diagnosed, and was never able to finish it.

“I’ve never made a personal film before. The desire to move home, because we were based in San Francisco, was initially to help my dad out and make sense of things,” Banker told Life Matters Media. “I think it became clear that it could be a very powerful thing to share with other people. The film even helped our family communicate better.”

Anna first became acquainted with Pam through the earliest video recordings. “It made me think about my relationship with my parents,” she said. “I thought this would resonate universally.”

Early in the film, Pam seems to be in denial about her diagnosis. In a tense scene recorded while driving, Banker asks if she remembers her mother’s decline. “She had Alzheimer’s, and I don’t,” she replies. “Didn’t the doctor say that you did have early-onset Alzheimer’s?” Banker asks. “Careful!” Pam says, focusing her attention on the road. She is upset because she can no longer simply take the car and drive to the grocery store.

“There are definitely things that are awkward, but in a documentary you are tasked with managing a relationship between you and your subjects and being honest with the audience,” Banker said. “Alzheimer’s is such an isolating disease, because of the stigma attached with it and the requirements it puts on caregivers.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly six million Americans face the irreversible disease, a number expected to increase as the baby boomer generation ages. Nearly one in six women 65 and older will be diagnosed in their lifetimes.

One of the most difficult effects of Alzheimer’s on family and friends is the slowness of the decline, Banker added.

“You are constantly reminded of who this person used to be, while you’re simultaneously losing this person, so there is no space for mourning. You are kind of overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring and redefining your relationship,” he said. “But there is also a special side, because it does give you time. Some of the most special moments with my parents have happened over the last four years.”

Anna said she believes a lack of hope and response from patients is one of most difficult parts of the disease. “You’re caring for someone who is able to give you less and less as things get more difficult, and that’s just hard,” she added. “There is also no room for hoping it will get better, that there will be a better path ahead.”

In an effort to help patients and families share their experiences, Anna and Banker said they hope to launch an interactive story sharing website in the coming weeks.

The Genius of Marian, an official selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, will be broadcast across the nation Sept. 8 as part of the PBS series POV.

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Nursing: A Vital Role In End Of Life Care

Linda Norlander hopes to empower nurses through her latest book, To Comfort Always: A Nurse’s Guide To End Of Life Care, Second Edition. Norlander, a registered nurse and award-winning author, argues that nurses play a vital role in helping provide compassionate, effective end of life care to the seriously ill.

Norlander, recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellowship, describes one of her earliest and most difficult nursing experiences in the opening pages:

Thirty years ago when I was a novice home care nurse, I was assigned to Margaret, a 70-year-old woman with terminal liver cancer. She lived with her husband and a disabled son. For five months, I struggled in vain to make her comfortable, to control her pain, to relieve her physical symptoms. I watched her diminish in front of me, her skin breaking down, her eyes glazed with pain, and I felt a growing helplessness. Looking back, I know she sensed my helplessness. I remember walking into her bedroom one day with dread. She was comfortable only in the fetal position on her left side. It was agony for her to be moved. Her husband’s eyes said, “Do something.” In desperation, I held her and asked, “Is there something more I can do for you?”

“No,” she whispered.

I didn’t believe her.

Back then, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know that her pain and symptoms could be managed, that dying is multilayered and multidimensional, and that Margaret’s personal, family, and spiritual suffering could be addressed. I didn’t know the crucial role that nursing could have played in helping Margaret die peacefully and comfortably. I wasn’t truly present for Margaret or her family.

“I chose to use that story because it was very close to me. I really didn’t know how to care for her, and the idea of the book is to know what you don’t know,” Norlander told Life Matters Media. “The book is a primer for nurses who care for the dying. At that time, I really didn’t know how to manage pain or deal with family. It was a turning point.”

NURSESGUIDENorlander said she believes nurses often provide the best “special care” and holistic medicine to the seriously ill and their families, partly because they provide hands-on care. “Physicians are excellent at disease and disease pathology, but I think nurses are better at holistic care, and nurses are good at developing relationships,” she said.

Published through the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International, the revised guide features expanded content on chronic illness, dementia, ethics, grief and suffering. The first edition was released in 2008 and won the Journal of American Nursing Book of the Year award in the medical-surgical category.

“Twenty years ago, when I first got into hospice care, there wasn’t even curriculum or nursing schools on how to care for the dying,” she added.

When asked about any advice she would give to prospective hospice nurses, Norlander said young nurses should be prepared to work diligently and face emotional situations.

“It’s hard work. It’s very rewarding work, but it’s hard work. If somebody wants a job where they punch in at 8 o’clock and punch out at 4:30, this would not be the way to go,” she offered. “I’m not saying that nurses don’t have boundaries, because they absolutely must have boundaries. But sometimes you just can’t put it aside. You have to have a passion for it.”

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More Stressful Caring For Spouse Than Parents

 “Couple” by George Hodan via Creative Commons

“Couple” by George Hodan via Creative Commons

It is more stressful to care for a frail spouse than for an elderly parent, according to a new nationwide survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The vast majority of spousal caregivers unexpectedly find themselves handling the complex medical tasks of nurses, such as managing medications and wound care.

Few Americans have made their wishes for end of life care known, and most 40 and older say they will count on family members to care for them as they age, according to the survey of more than 1,400. Respondents were far more likely to discuss funeral plans with friends and family than their preferences for assistance with daily living.

“Caregiving may start with driving a loved one to the doctor or helping with household chores, but progress to hands-on care, such as bathing. Increasingly, family members are handling tasks once left to nurses, such as the care of open wounds or injections of medication,” according to the AP report. “With a rapidly aging population, more families will face those responsibilities.”

Nearly 15 percent of respondents said they have cared for a spouse or partner.

“The traditional vows are through sickness and health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse,” said 62-year-old Raymond Collins of Houston. “At the age of 25 and 32, you say those things and you’re high on love and healthy, and life is all in front of you. The meanings of those words are pretty much lost, even when you concentrate on them.” Collins retired early to spend time with his wife who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago. She is now in a wheelchair.

Although Collins said he often felt angry and frustrated by his responsibilities, his marriage was ultimately strengthened in ways he did not expect. “Your relationship changes. Life as you know it becomes different,” he said.

Findings Reflected In Similar Study

According to recent findings published by the United Hospital Fund and the AARP Public Policy Institute, spousal caregivers are significantly more likely than other family caregivers to perform complex medical tasks while being far less likely to receive vital support.

Spousal caregivers tend to be older, less educated and less financially stable than non-spousal caregivers, such as adult children or siblings. The average age of a spousal caregiver is 64, a decade older than non-spousal caregivers, according to the 2011 survey. Nearly 50 percent of spousal caregivers have only a high school education or less, and more than half have incomes of less than $50,000.

“The challenges spouses who are caregivers face are daunting,” said Susan Reinhard, senior vice president and director of the Public Policy Institute and co-author of the report. “Nearly three-quarters of the spouses they care for were taking five or more medications, which are not easy to coordinate. Some of these medications were administered in non-pill forms, including injections and infusion pumps, with greater frequency than one might expect.” Nearly half of spousal caregivers provide care for three years or more.

The AP-NORC Center survey found broad support for tax breaks to help encourage saving for long-term care or for purchasing long-term care insurance. In 2009, there were an estimated 42 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S., providing an estimated $450 billion worth of unpaid care to adult and aging relatives and friends, according to AARP.

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