Nursing Homes Provide Palliative Care for Older Persons in Bogotá

Although the dominant culture in Colombia traditionally values familial care for dependent elders, that culture is being eroded by the modern imperative of small families where both parents work and also care for small children. Care is becoming increasingly professionalised, subsidized through an agglomeration of public and private entities, from insurance companies to faith based organisations.

I was privileged to visit a couple of these nursing homes when I was in Bogotá for a palliative care advocacy workshop hosted by the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care and the two Colombian national palliative care organisations, ASOCUPAC and ACCP,  Asociación Cuidados Paliativos de Colombia.

Dra Maria Lucia Samudio, a palliative care physician who specialises in geriatrics, was my expert guide around the two nursing homes.

Both Dra. Maria Lucia, and Dra Mercedes Franco, a psychologist located in Cáli, who founded a palliative care foundation that works with the most marginalised populations, are involved with the Colombia Compassionate Communities, Todos Contigo. Declaración de Medellín.

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Representatives of these Compassionate Communities can participate in the Agenda 2030 High Level Political Forum in 2018, which will consider Goal #11, among others, concerning sustainable cities. Since the “Todos Contigo” project includes the provision of community based palliative care, which will be a novelty for the High Level Political Forum, it will be great to hear the Colombian colleagues present at the UN next year.

At the two nursing homes we visited — one of which was state subsidised, the other run by a lay Catholic organisation and funded by donations, the staff were welcoming, the patients appeared to receive meticulous attention, and everything was clean. Both facilities, like most nursing homes, are struggling to make ends meet, sometimes staff don’t get paid on time, and there is strong competition for scarce resources. They still maintained an atmosphere of loving, patient centered care, though. Families were visibly welcome, providing care and attention to relatives and friends.

According to my companion, Colombia is considering a law similar to Costa Rica’s Ley de Cuidadoras, which pays caregivers a basic income. Of course, this is key to achieving several of the Agenda 2030 Goals, including #4 Quality Education, and #5, gender empowerment.

Since the chronic care facility is located in a beautiful historic part of Bogotá, none of its essential features can be remodeled.

IMG_8078.jpgWhile it can be a tedious and expensive proposition to maintain an old building, there are some benefits, such as the sunroom, where patients and families can come and enjoy some daylight and socialisation.

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The gorgeous old chapel is the only part of the interior that has not been remodelled. It contains C17 paintings of the Annunciation and St.Catherine of Sienna (patron saint of the sick), which hang under the original latilla and plaster ceiling.

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The second facility we visited was only for older adults with palliative care needs.  Of 26 patients, 23 had dementia diagnoses. When operating at full strength a few years ago, they had around double the number of older adults, and also had children, so it was a multi-generational care home.  The children and abuelos together painted the mural at the top of this posts, on the occasion of the first World Hospice and Palliative Care Day in 2005.

The bedrooms are beautifully kept, and as homelike as possible with keepsakes in every one for a family like atmosphere.

IMG_8096I met Señor L. in the dining room, after all the “abuelos” as the staff called them, had lunched. Not a dementia patient himself, he had lost his wife to cancer and dementia a few months previously.  Their family photo, hung with a rosary, is on the wall of his room, which used to be theirs.

The topic of palliative care for older persons will be on the agenda of the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing next year at the United Nations, and IAHPC welcomes all palliative care team providers to submit their stories, photos, and videos (with permission of the elders of course) for a special series of articles on Ehospice focusing on palliative care for older persons.  We are beginning to gather a body of evidence from all our partners in many countries regarding the state of palliative and long term care for older persons. We are planning a campaign to promote this very exciting and timely topic at the Open Ended Working Group in July 2018, including with side events, expert panels, and testimony of civil society providers of palliative care for older persons. We invite you to join us and submit your stories!

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Fingering in the wounds

I went on home visits to very poor neighborhoods in Montevideo last week with the excellent publicly funded palliative care teams at Hospital Maciel, originally a charity hospital founded by an order of sisters in the eighteenth century.

Interestingly, the otherwise state of the art palliative care teams did not do spiritual care, or do spiritual assessments when doing patient intake.  The professionals I asked about that responded that they provide psychological care, if necessary.  Courses in psycho-spiritual elements of palliative care are taught by psychologists.

Uruguay is a very secular country, an anomoly in Latin America, with a only minority of citizens identifying as Catholic or regular churchgoers.  Yet the country is well off, and very progressive in many ways, also an anomoly in that its national health service includes home based palliative care services.  The people are extremely friendly, and greet one another, even strangers like myself, with a kiss, much like the early Christians! It made me think, as I often do when I reflect on my secular friends and family members who wouldn’t be caught dead in a church, of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity,” a concept he did not have a chance to develop before he was executed by the Nazis in the last days of the Third Reich.

Although he was a Lutheran pastor, Bonhoeffer was very critical of the church and understood why people were drifting away from an institution that offered largely “cheap grace…grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross.” (Cost of Discipleship)  As Bonhoeffer said, “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.” (Letters and Papers from Prison) The concept of “religionless Christianity,” on the other hand, demands costly grace of disciples, and obedience to Jesus’ call to radically follow him. 

This morning’s mass readings for the Second Sunday of Easter include Jesus’ famous words to the disciple Thomas, the one who said he would not believe until he put his fingers in the wounds made by the nails of the Crucifixion.  Jesus tells him straight up to put his hands in the wounds, and feel for himself.  Although John’s Gospel does not specify that Thomas actually did that, it’s Jesus’ instruction in an era of religionless Christianity that interests me, because that is exactly what today’s doubters, today’s Thomases should do.  Feel for themselves the wounded body of Christ.

That wounded body is the forgotten ones — the people who are hungry, humiliated, diminished, marginalised, mentally ill, and dying. The doubters should put their hands in that body, literally get their hands dirty with the work of serving, like Dorothy Day, like the countless anonymous Christians and non-Christians who serve their helpless fellow human beings all over the world. Whether or not they interpret it that way, they are tending to the wounded body of God.  I think that is what Bonhoeffer was getting it.

I particularly love how John tells us that when Jesus appeared in his resurrected body in the middle of the huddled and frightened post-Crucifixion disciples, “Jesus breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit.”  Classical Greek renders that breath as πνεῦμα or pneuma. The Holy Spirit came through his breath.  I remembered to do the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen at a patient’s house the other day in response to the dense suffering that surrounded this teenager’s dying, and what a great practice tonglen is in such circumstances, when the pain brought on by the despair of losing a child is unbearable.  Being present to that despair allows us to breathe in the suffering as we inhale, and send out the holy spirit in our outbreath, our pneuma, to serve as a container for the pain, when the one who is suffering cannot.

Providing spiritual care as an integral component of palliative care can respect the secularity of the patient and family. It does not have to be religious or even “spiritual,” but can simply be compassionate, intentional presence  — being with the patient and family in their distress. According to one consensus definition, “Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” Attending to that need for meaning and purpose fills a vacuum that is otherwise filled with great suffering, suffering that cannot be assuaged by any amount of excellent clinical care.

I have been praying daily for the young man who is dying of an aggressive brain tumor, who is bedridden and whose friends don’t visit any more, and for his mother, whose grief we we were able to accompany for a brief time last week. Thank God for the palliative care teams — the religionless Christians — who could visit their humble home at no cost to the family, who could at least alleviate the young man’s physical pain and by their very attendance on him, let his family know they are not abandoned in their hour of greatest need.

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Palliative care as transformative practice: dedicated to my hospice/palliative care friends and colleagues around the world

Palliative care transforms everyone who participates in it — who gives and receives it — from the inside out.  It also has the power to transform systems from the inside out.  Palliative care practitioners need public recognition and funding to accomplish these transformations for the benefit of patients, families, and health systems around the world.  Palliative care ethics cut against the grain of profit-oriented systems that reward individualistic, rather than socially embedded, conceptions of health and wellbeing.

Palliative care values people as human beings, as ends in themselves. Its ethical compass overrides the dominant system priorities, being pointed at the moral imperative of alleviating vulnerability and distress.

By identifying and attending to pain along multiple dimensions — to “total pain” — palliative care affirms the inherent value of the person.  Its concern with suffering amounts to a declaration that our common mortality makes us all, no matter how ill or debilitated, equal. In that sense, palliative care is profoundly democratic and non-elitist.  That in itself is transformative.

The qualities and virtues palliative care builds in practitioners at the bedside (the microcosm) have the power to shift world views in the macrocosm. It is not overstating the case to say that the development of palliative care represents the beginning of a paradigm shift. Unlike their patients, palliative care practitioners and advocates have voice and influence in the public world, and are using it to call for the discipline’s integration into national and global health systems as a matter of justice.

Palliative care advocates such as myself and my colleagues who work at the international level, remind countries of their human rights obligation to institutionalise palliative care as part of the right to the highest attainable standard of health. This requires that they develop policies and allocate funds to support it.

The strategy of presenting palliative care as a human right, rather than as an option, allows policymakers to see it as a universal need rather than a political football. Populations all over the world are rapidly ageing, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart conditions, is increasing. Funders and policymakers realise that they and their families will also need palliative care in the not so distant future. Universally recognisable needs rarely cause political fights.

Palliative care practice is politically subversive, although not in the conventional sense of political campaigns that cause harm by seeking power or shaming opponents. Its virtues and ethics are deeply political in the classical sense though, a sense that has been largely forgotten, but is immanent in our political DNA. These virtues are expressed in the friendship, courage, and honesty (truth-telling) that exemplify best practice palliative care.

When the ancient citizenship virtues are practiced in the modern context of the private realm, at the beside, palliative care communities are actually reconstructing the genetic material of the public sphere, much as stem cells do. They are rebuilding damaged ethical tissue from the inside out, causing the dominant system or politeia — body politic — to shed its old skins, and reorient itself toward the common, rather than the private good.

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Palliative care and hospice practice inspires learning along spiritual, as well as clinical and psycho-social dimensions. Practitioners’  proximity to death and embrace of vulnerability, advances the emotional intelligence of society as a whole.  We have the privilege of accompanying people who are journeying between the worlds, our ‘patients.’ They and their personal caregivers have so much to teach us about what is really important during their final months and days.

Those teachings usually concern the values of surrender and open-heartedness, as well as struggle. Surrender, paradoxically, opens human consciousness to truths and realities that are not otherwise apparent when we are immersed in the more “worldly” dimensions of achievement and commerce.

Bedside practice teaches us to slow down, listen, and be respectful of both the “undignified” and the unfathomable.  What we learn there informs our family and public lives. It creates a ‘meme’ that can replicate effectively, transforming other key domains of our worlds.

May the vision of universal palliative care can become a reality!

Paediatric Palliative Care: Bringing in the Kingdom — Christmas Blog For “Little Stars” Film Series

HOW PROVIDING PALLIATIVE CARE FOR CHILDREN WITH LIFE-LIMITING AND LIFE-THREATENING ILLNESS CALLS IN THE KINGDOM AND BENEFITS US ALL

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted” Psalm 34:18 “The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” Rumi.

The Christmas season calls Christians to reflect on what we call the Incarnation, or God taking human birth in a little child destined to suffer and die at the hands of those whose power he threatened. This blog reflects on how we, as community members, can serve the Incarnation in the persons of seriously ill children and their families, bringing gifts, like the Magi, of ourselves, our treasure.

When I lived in San Diego, I volunteered as as a Spanish translator for the paediatric hospice home-care teams that served the Mexican and Central American immigrant communities. I was privileged to visit the (usually very humble) homes of families, often single mothers, caring for seriously ill children with not much time to live. My job was only to translate the words: the energy of love in the room needed no translation, since it was accessible to everyone present. In it they “lived and moved and had their being.” (Acts 17:28)

It is a rare privilege to be in the presence of such love.

For Christians, the unconditional love and tenderness children with serious and terminal illness evoke — whether they are our biological kids or not — is an intimation of God’s presence. Jesus referred to them in MT 25: 40, as “the least of my brethren,” to emphasise God’s connection with humanity, telling his followers that “the kingdom belongs to such as these”. (MT 19:14)

I think what Jesus was getting at is the fact that children’s natural trust and dependence effortlessly pry open the hearts of those who care for them. They accomplish this feat of spiritual mechanics by calling on us to mirror their virtues: trust, generosity, and unconditional love. Children’s hospices all over the world represent one vision of the coming of the kingdom that Jesus spoke of, which we intuit as “here, but not yet.” A world with sufficient palliative care and adequate pain medicine for all prefigures the kingdom, being illuminated by values of the common good that prioritise the most vulnerable.

The virtues of generosity, friendship, and service inherent in palliative care are universal though. They are hardly the exclusive property of Christianity. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle considered them the core virtues of classical citizenship. Although immanent to all of us, as children show us so vividly, the virtues can’t be left dormant, or they wither. They must be continually practiced, enacted in community, to bear fruit. Caring for seriously ill children, whether as a clinician, a volunteer, or a fundraiser, allows anyone, whether they think of themselves as religious, spiritual, or non-theistic, to practice the virtues to benefit the community as a whole.

The Christmas story of Jesus’ birth in an outbuilding in Bethlehem reveals God’s solidarity with the most vulnerable. That solidarity is a particular type of love, or spiritual friendship characterised by self-giving. A pearl of great price. Our service to terminally ill children and their caregivers, who ideally include palliative care teams, participates in that solidarity.

The Little Stars films (http://www.littlestars.tv) intimately connect viewers with the love and solidarity that run like live current through the world of children’s hospice and palliative care. The films can be used as advocacy tools to bridge the vast gap between the global need for paediatric palliative care and adequate provision that is the target of the ICPCN NOW Campaign.

See http://www.icpcnnow.com for more information.