Hospice Care: Three Little-Known Ways to Make the Most of Time with a Loved One

You might find this month’s “grab bag” post a bittersweet one: What are some ways to maximize the time left with a loved one who’s dying? It’s a difficult and monumental topic, but my goal for these brief suggestions is to infuse some hope and meaning into the challenging times.

photo: Robynlou Kavanagh

photo: Robynlou Kavanagh

I spent a few years as a hospice social worker. That meant that I helped the dying person and their loved ones address anything non-medical that was important to them at the time.  …This ranged from emotional, relational, and grief issues to financial matters and final wishes–and many topics in between. It proved both incredibly hard and incredibly rewarding.

Consistent threads wove themselves into the varied tapestry of these precious people. Every situation looked different yet similar in some ways. The three suggestions below stuck with me since they played a major role in nearly every hospice patient’s home.

1. Attempt to strengthen relationships. Let’s get the most complex suggestion on the table first. Far and away, broken relationships affect a dying person the most, usually even more than their own impending death. If discord, which usually began years earlier, exists between the person and a loved one (or more often, among that person’s loved ones, such as their kids), it likely hinders how peacefully a person passes away. Try to resolve this if at all possible. If it’s not, at least show the dying person that effort is being made. The regret that follows the person who didn’t try is often harder to swallow than the grief itself.

Now, please let me reassure you of a couple of things: First, all families deal with some amount of dysfunction. Every. Single. One. Even the most loving families have some sort of issue, even if it’s minor. No family is perfect, and that’s okay. Many people I served through hospice felt like their family was a rarity if they had troubles with each other. Not so. The true rarity is the family with no relational issues, so there’s no shame in admitting that things aren’t picture-perfect.

Second, some relationships can’t (or shouldn’t) be mended. Yes, I’m contradicting myself. However, there’s no denying that certain severe, serious circumstances make it necessary to leave things as they are. Don’t feel pressured to “fix” boundaries that exist for good reason. Unsure if your situation falls into this category? My suggestion is to leap forward a year in your mind’s eye, and imagine looking back on this time–before your loved one passes away. Use this lens to explore if an effort should be made or not.

2. Make memories and mementos. This can be a magical time, despite the circumstances. Use it to do special things together if at all possible. One of my patients voiced a simple request: one last all-out steak dinner. His strength wouldn’t allow a trip to his favorite restaurant, so we made the most of it at his house. He and his wife enjoyed a special, candle-lit meal together at their own table.

Or create a keepsake to help smooth the rough road ahead. A popular and easy token uses common polymer clay (more info is posted below). The idea is the capture the feel of your loved one’s unique fingerprint in a permanent treasure. I loved showing families how to do this. Make it into a pendant, a keychain–whatever you’d like. Its feel can comfort you for years to come, and it can be made with little to no discomfort to your loved one.

3. Keep talking. Words and music are powerful, especially in the last days and hours. Play your loved one’s favorite music in the background, and don’t be surprised if they react to it despite being “unconscious.” Humming, singing, or moving might happen.

And even if he or she seems non-responsive, keep talking to them. Research has shown that hearing is often the last sense to leave a person. So, chances are better than not that your words are being heard. This is your time to say what’s on your heart.

I hope at least one of these tools makes itself useful. Despite the specifics the underlying message is this: Whether or not your loved ones are journeying through final days, take hold of the time together…now. That’s the surest path to no regrets.

Want to know more about the fingerprint keepsake? Feel free to ask me questions, too.