Assistance in creating a “good death” is a fundamental task of any organization working with elders and may be addressed by a number of team members singly or in combination. Since these discussions are often easier said than done, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my experiences since I, as a geropsychologist, regularly discuss dying with residents and their families.
It’s a more-than-timely topic. As I once wrote in my column, “Creating better deaths in long-term care,” end of life care has been the subject of increased media attention in recent years. The importance of a conversation or series of conversations about the resident’s wishes has been emphasized by organizations like The Conversation Project and writers such as Atul Gawande, M.D. in his bestselling book, “Being Mortal.”
Here’s some added perspective. Not too long ago, I was checking the medical orders in a long-term resident’s chart when I noticed that she was “full code.” Bernice was 92 years old with a history of chronic illnesses and a recent decline in functioning.
While many residents have advance directives that prohibit care in the event that breathing or the heart stops (such as a Do Not Resuscitate order), full code allows for all interventions needed to restore breathing or heart functioning, including chest compressions, a defibrillator and a breathing tube.
I thought of the distraught expressions on the faces of the nurses who had rushed to provide full code care to Jim, a frail elderly man who’d been a staff favorite during the course of his stay. The full code was at the insistence of his son, who couldn’t bear the thought of his dad’s passing. Jim’s ribs were cracked, the effort was unsuccessful and the nurses were devastated – at having to perform the procedure, not because Jim had died. It was obvious to everybody in the nursing home that Jim had been dying for months despite his son’s desire to forestall the inevitable.
Mindful of Jim’s painful demise, I raised the issue of advance directives with Bernice, asking her if she knew what “full code” meant and if she’d given any thought to how much medical treatment she wanted at the end of her life.
“What will be, will be,” she told me. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Her tone made it clear that persistence would be futile.
“There’s a lot more to it than that,” I replied, “but we don’t have to talk about it today.” I made a mental note to pursue the topic when she seemed less inclined to throw me out of her room.