In our culture, death is something we rarely talk about. What we want at the end of our lives and what our culture provides for are vastly different.
Because of this imbalance a Wednesday morning series at the Pickens Senior Center, on Stegall Drive near Lee Newton Park, is focusing on educating the elderly and teaching their caregivers about how to provide for their loved ones' wishes during the final stages of life.
The series begins at 9 a.m. each and will continue through the end of March.
“I hope by the end of the workshop people will see “hope” in the word hospice,” said Margaret Ognen, facilitator of the four-week program that deals with end-of-life decisions and the quality of life you can and should expect during that time. “Hospice can give hope to so many,” she said.
Ognen, who works with Affinis Hospice, said the series is all about educating the elderly and their caregivers on how to meet death on their own terms, as well as understanding that life’s value is not determined by its length.
Ognen said after the series she hopes people will change their way of thinking about death and know that hospice workers can give hope during crucial times in their lives.
“Through the work of a hospice team they can embrace the strong sense of community they have within their own community. I think too many are unaware (of that) when faced with critical times. I hope to achieve an educational journey for all in the community, including our healthcare professionals,” Ognen said.
Last week participants saw a PBS documentary lead by Bill Moyers called “On Our Own Terms.” The film, produced over two years, crossed the country from hospitals to hospices and into homes to chronicle people at the end of their lives. From people with terminal cancer to others with incurable diseases, the show documented how so many people die in hospitals instead of at home, free of pain and surrounded by the people they love.
Hospice experts say in many cases proper planning could prevent spending your last days in a sterile hospital.
In the film a young woman completely paralyzed from the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease is shown near the end of her life. For some time she has only been able to communicate with her eyes and she must be turned or moved every 15 minutes. When she develops an infection, the ethics committee at the hospital where she is receiving treatment meets to discuss her case and decide whether to give her antibiotics. The big question: How much is too much in terms of medical intervention? Despite providing the medications, she died some time later.
Achieving a “good” death and respecting people’s cultural differences was also a major point of the film, which addressed how some cultures don’t discuss dying while others celebrate life as part of the dying process.
According to the film, three of four Americans believe in life after death, a full 74 percent. They believe it will be a journey. But Americans don’t talk about death as easily as people from other cultures. Our belief systems and culture affect the choices we make about our own deaths.
“Everything about our culture tells us to run the other way (from death),” said the owner of Zen Hospice in San Francisco, who was interviewed for the film.
Their hospice workers program teaches counselors to absorb fear and grief and learn from those feelings instead of trying to keep them at bay.
“Just to give someone your attention is so important,” he said. “So often it’s the illness that gets all the attention and not the individual. We’ve forgotten in the last 50 years with our love of technology what it’s like to have grandma in the room next door and how to relate.
“Each person’s dying is unique. They have to make the decisions – not the doctors, not the priest, not the insurance companies. In most cases we can reduce 90-95 percent of an individual’s pain. Suffering isn’t reduced by morphine. Pain is reduced by morphine,” said the Zen Hospice founder.
“Each of us has the ability to embrace someone else’s pain within us,” he said, “and that’s what hospice is. This person’s suffering is my suffering. Do it with great love. We grow in this experience.”
The class-style presentations in the series begins at 9 a.m. and lasts an hour-and-a-half each Wednesday. Members of the public are welcome to bring a brown-bag lunch and to “enjoy lunch with other seniors in the community.”