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Wine Helps Patients And Families Connect At The End Of Life, Experts Say

Courtesy Jolien Somers via Pixabay
Courtesy Jolien Somers via Pixabay

Wine and other spirits can help comfort some seriously ill patients and their families while in care centers or hospice programs, say end of life care experts.

Wine for the dying became a trending topic after a French hospital announced new plans to open a wine bar so seriously ill patients can enjoy a medically supervised glass with their families.

Loretta Downs, past president of the Chicago End-of-Life Care Coalition and a hospice volunteer, supports the decision and said it is common for many seriously ill patients receiving hospice care to request wine and other comforts.

“What is comfort to one person is not to another. The French drink wine with meals. For me, I want to eat chocolate ice cream and nothing else in the final days of my life,” Downs told Life Matters Media. “When Cicely Saunders founded St. Christopher’s House, the first hospice, her ‘comfort cart’ contained cigarettes and whiskey.”

Instead of providing patients “a cocktail of chemical drugs” to keep them comfortable, Downs said she believes wine can be a beneficial alternative. “It is consumed socially, not medically like a pill,” she added.

Carrie Jackson, an Alzheimer’s disease advocate and writer, recalled how an unexpected bottle of sparkling wine helped her connect with her father during his final moments. After more than two years of living in a nursing home, he died from complications associated with the irreversible disease.

Carrie Jackson and her father, . Family photo.
Carrie Jackson and her father, Henry George. Family photo.

“I sat vigil with him in his crappy Medicaid nursing home for six days. It was right across from Trader Joe’s, and on most nights I would stop in there to take a sandwich back for myself. On one particularly difficult night, I brought back a bottle of sparkling wine to make the hours of sitting by his bed a little more bearable,” she told LMM. “When I brought it back into his room, I eyed the mouth swab sitting on the counter, and remembered that his nurse had said to keep his mouth moist. So I poured a little wine into a cup, soaked the swab, and gently glided it over my father’s lips.”

Although he was not able to respond, Jackson said she saw “a little light in his eye,” before pouring herself a glass and giving him a final toast.

The Clermont-Ferrand University Hospital Center in central France released a statement highlighting France’s “hedonistic relationship” with wine. “Why refuse those flavors at the end of life? Nothing justifies such a ban. Instead, tasting ‘medically supervised’ brightens the often difficult days,” according to the statement written in French.

However, it is unlikely that most major American medical centers will do the same, said Dr. Jayson Neagle, an assistant professor of palliative medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“Sometimes family members ask me if their loved one can have a glass of wine, and for the most part, unless there is a medical reason to avoid alcohol, I often tell them that if it’s something they’ve enjoyed throughout their life, they should continue to enjoy it,” Neagle told LMM.

However, U.S. hospitals must be careful with alcohol programs, because it can be seen as a tacit endorsement of drinking and dangerous to other patients. Neagle said Northwestern has only limited spirits available for patients seeking to use them in a religious or cultural ritual.

Inpatient centers and home hospice programs are far more likely to develop wine programs, he added. Hospice and palliative care programs primarily focus on providing comfort for patients near the end of life.

Jeff Okazaki, director of communications at Illinois-based Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care, echoed Neagle’s concerns.

“Whenever possible we try to accommodate these requests or encourage families to keep on hand things like food or drink items that a patient has enjoyed throughout their life,” he told LMM. Rainbow does not regularly serve alcohol to patients, he added, and there are no plans to develop a wine bar.

But Okazaki remains open to the idea. “Who knows, the hospice industry in Europe is much older and more established, so in many ways they are a precursor of things to come in the U.S. We may very well one day see the same thing opening here.”