In the days before medicine advanced enough to fix organs and enable us live ever longer, it would’ve been considered a betrayal of family to let a loved one live out their lives in the company of strangers.
Never was the word ‘burden’ spoken when caring for and putting at the center, their loved one. It was a given that the immediate and extended family would help – would ‘give back’ – to that person who’d given so much during the course of their lives.
Dying was a family affair
Each family member would take part in the care and tending as functions diminished – whether it be washing, cleaning, feeding or keeping company. This doesn’t mean it was a welcomed experience for all, but it made the closing of circle of life less scary, daunting and unfamiliar. The spirit of that loved one lived on by their consistent presence in the family home.
How many have seen dying and death?
These days, most of us know dying and death from the media – whether through constructed drama (ER, Scrubs, CSI) or real-life (pick a war-torn country). These are but fleeting moments that don’t reflect the reality of the emotions and exhaustion that come with the crises of a prolonged period of dying.
For we who have no medical training to cope with those crises – however small – it can be terrifying. Coupled with the (often false) promise of the hospital as a place of restoring health.
Answers require questions
As I come to learn more of what to expect, I realize that’s what’s missing: we don’t know what to expect any more.
A bladder infection or pneumonia – common in the elderly or in a compromised immune system – can be treated with antibiotics, but that often comes with its own unintended consequences: a further weakened immune system.
In the words of two women I recently interviewed – who are determined to understand what we need to support dying at home: “The core of being at home is that it enables autonomous decision: if I want to have a dog, I can”.
There may not be any easy answers, but if –as all the surveys indicate – we all want to die at home, isn’t it essential to ask the questions?